Tension Headaches: Fast Facts

  • Tension headaches are more common in women than in men.
  • They can occur at any age, but are most common in women between ages 30 and 39.
  • According to the American Pain Foundation, 90 percent of headaches that aren't caused by a disease are tension headaches.
  • It was once believed that tension headaches were caused by the contraction of neck and scalp muscles. However, research has since called this belief into question.
  • Tension headaches are associated with chemical changes similar to those that occur with a migraine. Because of this, some experts believe the two types of headaches are related.
  • Medications, including those for depression and high blood pressure, and frequent use of pain medications can trigger tension headaches.
  • Headaches triggered by pain medications are called rebound-withdrawal headaches.
  • Alcohol, nicotine, caffeine and other products that stimulate your body may also trigger a headache.
  • Tension headaches can be accompanied by a number of other symptoms and often occur in a pattern. Talk to you doctor about these and report immediately any headache that deviates from this pattern.
  • Tension headaches are usually not a symptom of an underlying disease.
  • In rare cases, head pain may indicate a more serious underlying condition, such as a brain tumor or an aneurysm.
  • While collecting your medical history, a doctor may ask you about your symptoms. It may be difficult to remember everything you may want to tell your doctor, especially if you have frequent headaches. For many sufferers, it helps to write a list of symptoms and details about them. You can bring this list with you as a reference.
  • Analgesics are among the most common medications used for tension-headache pain. They either stop pain signals from going to the brain or alter the brain's interpretation of those signals.
  • You can identify factors that trigger your tension headaches by keeping a headache diary for at least two months. To compile this journal, record the details of your headache and the circumstances leading up to it. Then try to avoid those factors that trigger your headaches.
  • You can reduce the frequency and severity of tension headaches with regular aerobic exercise, such as walking, swimming and bicycling. Exercise can also relieve the pain of an existing headache. Discuss physical activity with you doctor before starting an exercise routine.
  • Tension headaches often only last about 30 minutes, but they can last much longer. Some people have tension headaches that last an entire week.
  • Tension headaches usually develop early in the day, usually soon after you wake up.
  • Tension headaches that occur on fewer than 15 days a month are referred to as episodic.
  • Tension headaches occurring on 15 days a month or more for at least six months may be described as chronic.
  • You are more likely to get tension headaches if someone in your immediate family, such as a parent, child, sister or brother, gets tension headaches.
  • You should discuss all severe, persistent or recurring headaches with your doctor.
  • It is especially important to call a doctor if your headache disturbs your sleep, worsens with activity, doesn't improve with treatment, changes in pattern or intensity or is accompanied by other symptoms (e.g., drowsiness, nausea and vomiting, vision or speech changes).

Reviewed by Vikas Garg, M.D., MSA

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