tension headache

Tension Headache 101: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment & Remedy

What is a tension headache? Learn more about the causes, symptoms, triggers, remedies, treatment, and prevention of tension headaches.

by Nathasha Lee

Do you sometimes experience a throbbing in your temples, painful and sensitive eyes, and tight neck muscles? These headache symptoms can often be mistaken for a migraine, but they might be signs of a tension headache instead. In this article we will talk about what tension headaches, what might trigger them, and how you can prevent and treat these headaches when they occur.

What is a Tension Headache?

Tension headaches are also known as tension-type headaches, stress headaches, or muscle tension headaches. Tension headaches often cause pain on both sides of the head that ranges from mild to moderate. It is not often accompanied by nausea. The duration of the pain can range from 30 minutes to a few hours. Tension headaches can recur for several days. You might be diagnosed with chronic tension headaches if you experience tension headaches more than 15 times a month for at least three consecutive months.

Tension headaches are most common among adolescents and young adults. They occur more frequently in women than in men.

Tension Headache Symptoms

The symptoms of tension headaches include:

  • Pain in one or both temples
  • Pressure behind the eyes
  • Tight muscles in the neck, shoulder, and scalp

Occasionally tension headaches can cause your eyes to be sensitive to light from the increased pressure exerted on them. The headache pain might also be severe when you move your head in certain ways, like looking down or turning your head from side to side.

Tension Headache vs Migraine

Tension headaches are often mistaken for migraines as both conditions involve pain in the temples and behind the eyes. However, there are some key differences between migraines and tension headaches.

Unlike tension headaches, migraine headaches come in stages. Initially one would feel unusual tiredness before other symptoms of migraines present themselves. Migraines are often precluded by an aura before the onset of severe head pain. Before the onset of a migraine, one would often see unusual effects like dots, sparkles, or bright patches of light around objects and people. This phase is often accompanied by feelings of confusion or fear, disturbances in hearing and speech, and occasionally fainting.

The pain caused by migraine headaches is also a lot more severe than that of tension headaches. The pain from migraines is often so intense that one cannot sit up or move around. Other symptoms unique to migraines include nausea and vomiting, difficulty speaking, numbness and tingling.

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Tension Headache Causes and Triggers

Here are some common causes and triggers of tension headaches:


Drinking enough fluids is essential to regulating the pressure in your head. Our body is mostly made up of water, so water is needed for the healthy functioning of body tissue. Dehydration frequently leads to tension headaches as the brain can temporarily contract when it doesn’t have enough water, exerting pressure on the head. Working out for a long time, high temperatures and vomiting are some factors that can increase the risk of developing a tension headache from dehydration.

Eye strain

Looking at screens for a long period of time places a lot of stress on the eye muscles as they need to be constantly extended to focus our gaze. Spending hours sitting in front of a computer can cause tension headaches. This is compounded by the stress placed on your temporalis muscles located on the sides of the base of your neck from spending a long time typing in a seated position. 

Emotional stress

Intense feelings of anxiety can cause tension headaches or make them worse. Stress triggers the release of certain chemicals that cause tension headaches. Specific episodes of tension headaches can be related to stressful events going on in your life.

Skipping meals

Missing a meal can cause tension headaches from the lack of glucose and fluids our brains need to function regularly. When you don’t eat regular meals, your body might be deprived of the energy required to sustain the brain’s normal activity. As our meals also contain some of the fluids required for daily fluid intake, our brains can also be stressed from not having enough fluids. If you want to fast and frequently experience tension headaches from missed meals, please consult a dietician to learn how to gain enough nutrients and fluids even when you are not following your typical meal schedule.

Temporomandibular jaw disorder (TMD)

Temporomandibular jaw disorder, or TMD for short, refers to disorders involving the misalignment of the lower jaw. Symptoms include pain in the muscles located in your cheeks and temples, a clicking or popping sound when you move your jaw, and difficulty with movements like chewing and yawning. The misalignment of the jaw places stress on facial tissue and can frequently cause tension headaches. 

Tension Headache Relief

If tension headaches are making it difficult for you to carry out regular activities, you need to take a break. Reducing the intensity of your physical activities, cutting down screen time and getting more sleep are essential to helping your body recover on its own.

Massaging the areas around your temples can also be helpful in relieving the pain of tension headaches, especially if they are caused by TMD. You can gently massage the temples by moving your fingers in a circular motion over them. Using a heat pad over the tender areas can also work to relieve pain. If you have TMD, you can consult an orthodontist on more exercises you can do to reduce jaw pain and headaches.

Tension Headache Treatment

There is no way to completely remove one’s chance of getting tension headaches, but medical treatments are available to greatly reduce the likelihood of having them.

If certain areas of your head are prone to hurt during tension headaches, your doctor may insert a local anaesthetic into these trigger points to prevent the pain from occurring in the future. While non-drug methods are generally used to treat tension headaches, your doctor may prescribe medication if treating tension headaches on your own has been ineffective.

Tension Headache Prevention

Below are some tips to help you prevent tension headaches:

Manage your stress levels

Emotional stress is a frequent trigger for tension headaches, so managing your stress levels is an important way to manage your tension headaches. You can add meditation and deep breathing exercises to your daily schedule to relieve the stresses of the day.

Relax the muscles around your face

Physical and mental relaxation exercises can help to alleviate the pain of tension headaches. Stretching from exercises like pilates and yoga can release the tension from tight face and neck muscles and make the pain from tension headaches less severe. Mental relaxation techniques include consciously visualising and relaxing each of your muscle groups using guided imagery techniques.

Regulate your screen time

Eye strain is a leading contributor to tension headaches. If you need to sit in front of a computer for a long time, taking regular breaks is important to preventing eye strain. For example, you can try getting up every 30 minutes to stretch or to walk around without looking at a computer or handphone screen.  

Stay hydrated

As mentioned earlier, drinking lots of fluids is important to maintaining regular brain function and preventing headaches. The recommended daily intake of water for an adult is generally between four to six glasses. However, it can be easy for us to forget we need to drink some water because we might not sense our thirst well when we age. Placing a beaker of water next to your laptop as you work, for example, can be a good way of reminding yourself to get enough water throughout the day.

When Should I See a Doctor for a Tension Headache?

In most cases tension headaches are mild conditions that resolve on their own and do not require medical intervention. However, you should see a doctor promptly for your headaches if you have any of the following:

  • Headaches that are steadily becoming more and more painful
  • Headaches that increase with coughing or with movement
  • Headaches accompanied by a high fever and/or vomiting
  • Headaches when you have cancer and/or an impaired immune system

Are your headaches making you so uncomfortable that it is difficult for you to go out of the house to get the medication you need? If you are concerned about your headaches you can arrange to have a doctor come to your house or have a consultation online.

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  1. Harvard Health. (2020, April 15). Headache: When to worry, what to do. https://www.health.harvard.edu/pain/headache-when-to-worry-what-to-do
  2. Harvard Health. (2020, April 18). 4 ways to tame tension headaches. https://www.health.harvard.edu/pain/4-ways-to-tame-tension-headaches
  3. Harvard Health. (2020a, March 25). How much water should you drink? https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/how-much-water-should-you-drink
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  5. Raffles Medical Group. (2021, April 26). Temporomandibular Joint Disorders » Raffles Dental, Singapore. https://www.rafflesmedicalgroup.com/services/dental/specialist-services/temporomandibular-joint-disorders/
  6. Stress •. (2018, August 3). National Headache Foundation. https://headaches.org/2007/10/25/stress/#:%7E:text=In%20times%20of%20emotional%20stress,%2C%20excitement%2C%20and%20mental%20fatigue.
  7. The Migraine Trust. (2021, June 25). Symptoms and stages. https://www.migrainetrust.org/about-migraine/migraine-what-is-it/symptoms-and-stages/
About the Writer
Nathasha Lee
Nathasha Lee is a final-year Anthropology major at Yale-NUS College. She hopes her writing can make a positive difference in the lives of readers, no matter how small. In her spare time, she enjoys making art, listening to podcasts, and drinking lots of tea.
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