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Tension Headaches

Tension headaches, or tension-type headaches, are the most common type of primary headache, which means they aren’t caused by an injury or other disorder.

Tension headaches used to be called “muscle contraction headaches” or “stress headaches.” There are three types of tension headaches including infrequent episodic, frequent episodic and chronic.

Infrequent Episodic Tension Headache

People with infrequent episodic tension headaches, experience one or less headache per month.

Frequent Episodic Tension Headache

People with frequent episodic tension headaches, have headaches 2 to 15 days per month. Headaches will typically occur over a three month period or longer. Each headache may last a half an hour or may last many days. The pain gets more severe the more often the headaches occur.

Chronic Tension Headache

Chronic tension headaches happen more than half the time (more than 15 days per month) in a three-month time frame. Many people who experience chronic tension headaches have pain constantly on both sides of the head and their scalps can feel tender. The headaches from chronic tension headache are more painful. Most people with chronic tension headaches first had the episodic form.

Symptoms of Tension Headaches

Facts about Tension Headaches

  • Tension headaches affect women slightly more often than men
  • Tension headaches typically begin during the adolescent years and peak in the 30s
  • Different studies show that up to three-fourths of people will have a tension headache at some time in their lives
  • People can suffer from tension headaches frequently or infrequently (occasionally)

Possible causes of Tension Headaches

  • Stress
  • Conflict
  • Missed meals
  • Clenched jaw
  • Overexertion
  • Lack of sleep
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Holding different positions that strain the head or neck muscles
  • Poor posture
  • Arthritis in the neck
  • Dysfunction in the TMJ, the temporomandibular joint between the ear and jaw

Other names for Tension Headaches

  • Muscle contraction headaches
  • Psychomyogenic headache
  • Stress headache
  • Ordinary headache
  • Essential headache
  • Idiopathic headache
  • Psychogenic headache

What is the difference between a migraine headache and tension headache

Migraines are often accompanied by migraine aura, the warning signs that the attack is about to begin. Tension headaches don’t have a warning phase, called the prodrome. Tension headaches also don’t typically cause nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, weakness or numbness. Although some people experience sensitivity to light and sound with tension headaches they are not common symptoms as they are with migraines.

It is possible for a tension headache to trigger an attack in individuals with migraine disease if the tension headache is not treated quickly.

When to seek medical attention

Consult your doctor if you have frequent tension headaches or if your headaches make it difficult to follow your daily routine.


Written by: Otesa Miles | Last review date: November 2010