Tension-Type Headaches

Tension-type headache is a term used to describe a headache causing mild to moderate pain that often feels like a tight band across your forehead or pressure around the head and neck. These headaches may be provoked by the stress of everyday life, eyestrain or poor posture. They are not worsened by routine activity, and generally do not stop sufferers from going about their daily activities.

Typically the pain is not troublesome enough to make people see a doctor. People who get tension-type headache do not experience sensitivity to light, sound or movement, and they do not experience nausea or vomiting. The underlying cause of tension-type headache is unknown.

Symptoms of a tension headache include:

  • Mild to moderately intense pain, lasting from 30 minutes to as long as an entire week
  • Tightness or pressure across your forehead or on the sides and back of your head

Tension-type headaches differ from migraines in that they're not associated with sensitivity to light, sound or smell, and there is no nausea or vomiting. In addition, physical activity does not aggravate the pain like it does in people who have migraine.

Tension-type headaches typically are not disabling and people rarely seek medical attention for them.

Tension-type headaches are diagnosed based on symptoms and a neurologic examination. Your doctor will ask about the severity, frequency and duration of your headaches, as well as other symptoms that occur and medications you are taking. Keeping a headache journal is a good way to track the location and severity of pain, duration of pain, medications taken and possible headache triggers.

Nonprescription pain relievers are usually adequate to relieve the mild to moderate pain of tension-type headache. They include naproxen, acetaminophen and ibuprofen.

If your doctor prescribes you medication, be sure to ask:

  • How often the medication should be taken
  • If the medication should be taken with meals or on an empty stomach
  • What to do if pain or other symptoms persist

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Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital.

Related Information

UCSF Clinics & Centers

Pediatric Brain Center

Child and Adolescent Headache Program
1825 Fourth St., 5th Floor, 5A
San Francisco, CA 94158
Phone: (415) 502-1914
Fax: (415) 353-2400
Appointment information

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