Although headache pain sometimes can be severe, in most cases it's not the result of an underlying disease. The vast majority of headaches are so-called primary headaches. These include migraine, cluster headache and tension headache.

What is it?

A tension headache is the most common headache, and yet it's not well understood. A tension headache generally produces a diffuse, usually mild to moderate pain over your head. Many people liken the feeling to having a tight band around their head. A tension headache may also cause pain in the back of your neck at the base of your skull.

In many cases, there's no clear cause for a tension headache. Fortunately, effective treatments for tension headaches are available. Managing a tension headache is often a balance between fostering healthy habits, finding effective nondrug treatments and using medications appropriately. In addition, a number of preventive, self-care and alternative treatments may help you deal with headache pain.

What causes it?

Experts continue to debate the causes and even the name of tension headaches. Over the years, as different theories emerged about the origins of this type of headache, it was known by names such as muscle contraction headache, psychogenic headache, depressive headache, essential headache and ordinary headache.

The exact cause or causes of tension headache are unknown. Until a few years ago, many researchers believed that the pain of tension headache stemmed from muscle contraction in the face, neck and scalp, perhaps as a result of heightened emotions, tension or stress. But many researchers have questioned this idea.

More recent research discredits this theory. Studies using a test called an electromyogram, which records the electric currents generated by muscle activity, haven't detected increased muscle tension in people diagnosed with tension headache. In addition, people with a migraine headache have as much if not more muscle tension than that of people with a tension headache.

As a result, The International Headache Society uses the term tension-type headache instead of tension headache, calling attention to the fact that muscle tension may not be the main cause of this kind of head pain.

Some common causes of headaches may include:

  • Stress.
  • Depression and anxiety.
  • Lack of sleep or changes in sleep routine.
  • Skipping meals.
  • Poor posture.
  • Working in awkward positions or holding one position for a long time.
  • Lack of physical activity.
  • Occasionally, hormonal changes related to menstruation, pregnancy, menopause or hormone use.
  • Medications used for other conditions, such as depression or high blood pressure.
  • Overuse of headache medication.

What are the symptoms?

A tension headache may cause you to experience a dull, achy pain or sensation of tightness in your forehead or at the sides and back of your head. Many people liken the feeling to having a tight band of pressure encircling their heads. In its most extensive form, the pain feels like a hooded cape that drapes down over the shoulders. The headache is usually described as mild to moderately intense. The severity of the pain varies from one person to another, and from one headache to another in the same person. Most people report that the pain starts soon after waking in the morning or early in the day.

Some people with tension headache experience neck or jaw discomfort or a clicking sound when opening the jaw. There may also be:

  • Tenderness on the scalp, neck and shoulder muscles.
  • Difficulty sleeping (insomnia).
  • Fatigue.
  • Irritability.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Difficulty concentrating.

Are there any natural therapies?

  • Relaxant herbs such as Passionflower, Valerian and Hops can help to relieve the stress and nervous tension which sometimes leads to tension headache.
  • Magnesium is antispasmodic to the muscles and can be used to treat and prevent headaches caused by muscular stress.
  • Other natural therapies such as acupuncture, massage and essential oils may help to relax the body, and have all been successful in the relief of headaches.

What else can I do?

Rest, ice packs or a long, hot shower may be all you need to relieve a tension headache. A variety of nonmedication strategies can help reduce the severity and frequency of chronic headache. This approach can be a vital part of any treatment plan for headache.Try some of the following suggestions to see which work best for you:

  • Healhty lifestyle (including diet and exercise).
  • Stress management.
  • Muscle relaxation.
  • Perfecting your posture.

Did you know?

Tension headache probably accounts for a majority of all primary headaches. And it's more common in women than in men. Almost 90 percent of women and about 70 percent of men experience tension headaches during their lifetimes. Tension headache is most prevalent in people between the ages of 30 and 39. After age 39, prevalence declines. The majority of people who get migraine also get tension-type pain.