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tension headache

What is a tension headache?

23 Nov 2022 • 3 min read

Most of us will have experienced a tension headache in our lives; it’s the most common type of headache. People often refer to it as a normal, everyday headache.1

What does a tension headache feel like?

Think of a random headache you’ve had before – that’s what tension headaches typically feel like. Here are some typical symptoms of a tension headache:

  • An unrelenting ache on both sides of the head
  • Tightening of the neck muscles
  • Pressure forming behind the eyes
  • Forehead tension/pressure (like a tight band around the head)2

If you feel sick or nauseous, it is very unlikely to be a tension headache. You may feel like you don’t want to eat, though.

How long can tension headaches last?

Tension headaches usually last from 30 minutes to several hours but can sometimes last for multiple days in severe tension headaches.3

Who gets tension headaches?

Most people are likely to experience a tension headache at some point in their lives.

A population-based Danish study found that:4

  • 78% of people would get a tension headache in their lifetime
  • Majority would experience them infrequently (1 day a month or less) and wouldn’t need medical attention
  • Around 24-37% had tension headaches several times a month
  • 10% experienced tension headaches weekly
  • 2-3% had chronic tension headaches, which usually lasted for the majority of the lives

Women are slightly more likely to be affected with tension headaches than men.

People aged 30-39 years old are most likely to get tension headaches and cases tend to decrease slightly with ageing.

Can you get a tension headache every day?

Yes, although it is rare, some people can experience tension headaches on a daily basis.

If you have more than 15 tension headaches a month for at least 3 months in a row, this would be classed as a chronic condition.

What triggers tension headaches?

The exact cause of tension headaches isn’t clear, but there are certain common triggers to be aware of.5

Tension headache triggers include:

Tension type headaches are not caused by underlying conditions, which categorises them as primary headaches.

Other primary headaches include migraines and cluster headaches.

Can anxiety cause tension headaches?

Yes, anxiety is a common trigger for tension headaches.

This may be because:

  • People with anxiety usually have low serotonin levels. Fluctuating serotonin levels can cause muscles to tighten and blood vessels to constrict, both of which can trigger tension headaches and migraines.
  • Poor sleep is a trigger for both tension headaches and migraines.

A Korean study on 2695 participants found that those who experienced tension headaches were more likely to have anxiety or depression.6

Can eye strain cause tension headaches?

Eye strain headaches and tension headaches may feel similar, but they are two different types of headache.

Do tension headaches make you tired?

If your tension headache is affecting your sleep or causing you to change your lifestyle, then yes it can make you feel more tired than usual.

How do I know if it’s a tension headache or migraine?

Tension headaches and migraines can be difficult to differentiate as they feel quite similar. Here are a few of the differences to help you find out which one you’re having:

Migraine Headache
Intense pulsing and throbbing sensation Mild, dull pressure
Mainly felt on one side of the head Mainly felt throughout the forehead and scalp
Nausea  
Dizziness  
Seeing flashing lights  
Blind spots  

 

Handpicked content: The difference between a migraine and a headache

How do you get rid of tension headaches?

Tension headaches are not life-threatening and are rarely a cause of concern for most people. That doesn’t stop them from being a pain though! Here are some things that can help prevent or get rid of tension headaches.

What's the best medicine for tension headaches?

There is no specific medicine used to treat tension headaches, but painkillers are usually recommended to help ease the pain.7

Will ibuprofen help a tension headache?

Ibuprofen and paracetamol should help to ease the pain of tension headaches. Aspirin is also sometimes recommended – but only for those aged 16 and over.

Always make sure to follow the instructions on the packet and do not take for more than a few days at a time – you should arrange to see your doctor if the pain persists for multiple days.

Paracetamol is usually the best choice for pregnant women. It is recommended that pregnant women speak to a midwife, GP or pharmacist first if they’re considering taking ibuprofen.

What is a natural way to relieve tension headaches?

If you don’t like taking pain medications or want to try some natural ways to ease the symptoms of tension headaches, don’t worry! There are plenty of natural ways to help you get through a tension headache detailed below.

Does sleep help tension headaches?

Being tired and not sleeping enough can be a trigger for tension headaches. So, regularly getting a good night’s kip could decrease the number of headaches you get.

Already have a headache? Try drinking a pint of water (optional painkillers) and having a little nap to see if that helps fend it off.

Does caffeine help tension headaches?

The relationship between caffeine and headaches can be a bit of a tricky one. Sometimes caffeine can trigger a headache and other times it can help relieve the symptoms (but this is usually when you are already reliant on caffeine)

The National Headache Foundation recommends that you stick to enjoying caffeine in moderation (if at all).8

Is coffee good for tension headaches?

As discussed above, coffee and other caffeinated beverages can both bring on a headache or help relieve it. You need to find out what works for you, but it is generally recommended that you just enjoy caffeine in moderation instead of seeing it as a ‘treatment’.

What tea is good for tension headaches?

It depends if you want a caffeinated tea or a caffeine-free tea.

If you want to see if caffeine will help your headaches, then go for black or green tea.

Want to avoid caffeine? Try herbal teas like camomile, ginger, lavender, fennel or rose tea.

Does exercise help tension headaches?

Yes, getting regular exercise is not only great for your overall health, it can also help with tension headaches.

This is because exercising and relaxing are important for reducing stress and tension that may be causing your headaches. It can also help you to sleep better, which is important too as tiredness can trigger a tension headache.

Try and find an exercise that brings you joy and relaxation, like:

Does water help tension headaches?

Yes, dehydration is a very common headache trigger.

Make sure you drink enough water a day (typically 2 litres / 6-8 glasses) especially if it is warm or you are exercising / sweating a lot. Here’s how to make basic water exciting if you don’t like it plain.

Does heat help tension headache?

The NHS recommends applying a warm flannel to the back of your neck or a cool flannel to your forehead to help relieve stress-induced tension headaches.9

Does massage help tension headaches?

A lot of people find massage relaxing. Indulging in one can be a great way to de-stress and help ease the symptoms of some tension headaches.

Can acupuncture help tension headaches?

The National Institute of Health and Care Excellence have issued guidelines that state that a course of up to 10 acupuncture sessions over a 5-8 week period could help to prevent chronic tension headaches.10

What vitamins help tension headaches?

There are no official recommendations for specific vitamins, minerals and supplements to help treat tension headaches.

The following nutrients/supplements have been identified as having potential to help with migraines by The Migraine Trust. However, more studies are needed to conclude they actually work with migraines/tension headaches:11

Summary:

  • Tension headaches are a type of primary headache – they are not caused by other conditions
  • They are the most common type of headache and most of us will experience one
  • There are many causes for a tension headache, including dehydration, tiredness, stress, depression and lack of exercise
  • Painkillers are usually recommended, as well as activities that help you to de-stress like exercise, yoga and massage
The advice in this article is for information only and should not replace medical care. Please check with your GP or healthcare professional before trying any supplements, treatments or remedies. Food supplements must not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle.

Last updated: 03 May 2021

donia-hilal

Donia Hilal

Author

Nutritionist

Joined Holland & Barrett: January 2018

Bsc in Nutrition, Registered Associate Nutritionist and Certification in Pre and Post Natal Nutrition

Donia started her career as a freelance nutritionist, later she joined Nestle as their Market Nutritionist to help support their healthier product range, before joining the team at Holland & Barrett in January 2018.

Donia has over 6 years experience as a Nutritionist and also works with clients on a one to one basis to support their goals which include weight loss, prenatal and postnatal nutrition and children’s health.

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