Tension-Type Headache

Almost everyone has had a headache at one time or another. Some are mild and end quickly; others can be bad enough to keep you in bed for two or three days at a time.

There are many kinds of headaches. The difference is in where the pain occurs, how severe the pain is, and how often it happens. Headaches vary in what causes them. Some are caused by a medical problem, like a neck injury or sinus infection. These are called secondary headaches.

Other times, the headache itself is the main medical problem. These are called primary headaches. A primary headache sometimes has a trigger. A trigger can include such things as stress, certain foods or drinks, or smoking.

A tension-type headache is a type of primary headache. Migraine and cluster headaches are also primary headaches.


Tension-type headaches generally cause pain on both sides of your head. You may also get pain in the back of your head or your neck. The pain is usually dull or feels like a band around your head. The pain is steady rather than throbbing, and usually mild or moderate rather than severe.

The symptoms can occur after a stressful event or a hectic day. In some people they don’t occur often. But in others, get them often, sometimes every day for weeks or months at a time.

Tension-type headaches don’t usually cause nausea or vomiting like a migraine headache. But some people may have sensitivity to light or sound.


To diagnose tension-type headaches, your healthcare provider will ask about your medical history and your symptoms.

Keeping track of your symptoms can help your provider understand your headaches. Write down where you are feeling pain, how bad it is, and how long it lasts.  Also write down when your headaches occur. This can help you figure out what triggers them.

Your healthcare provider may also give you a physical exam. In some cases, you may have blood tests. You may also have imaging tests, including sinus X-rays. You may have an M-R-I, which uses magnets and a computer to make images. You may have a C-T scan, which uses a series of X-rays put together with a computer.


You can treat tension-type headaches a number of ways.

But the best treatment is prevention. Avoid the things that seem to trigger your headaches, if you can. Make sure to get enough sleep. Try to go to sleep and get up at the same time every day. Rest in a quiet, dark place as needed. Get at least 30 minutes of exercise every day. This will help you reduce stress and sleep better. Try yoga or other relaxation exercises to help manage stress. Don’t skip meals. Cut back on caffeine. Don’t smoke. Keep good posture. And take medications as advised by your health care provider.

Things to Remember

  • Keep a headache diary or calendar.
  • Avoid things that seem to trigger your headaches.
  • Do yoga or other relaxation exercises to manage stress.

What We Have Learned

  1. A tension-type headache is a type of primary headache. True or false?
    The answer is True. Other types of primary headache are migraine and cluster headaches.

  2. A tension-type headache often causes nausea and vomiting. True or false?
    The answer is False. Tension-type headaches do not cause nausea or vomiting.

  3. Many tests are needed to diagnose a tension-type headache. True or false?
    The answer is False. Depending on your history and medical exam, no further tests may be needed.