Tension Headache

A person's head and neck, showing a nerve and muscle

A muscle tension headache is a very common cause of head pain. It’s also called a stress headache. When some people are under stress, they tense the muscles of their shoulder, neck, and scalp without knowing it. If this tension lasts long enough, a headache can occur. A tension headache can be quite painful. It can last for hours or even days.

Home care

Follow these tips when caring for yourself at home:

  • Don’t drive yourself home if you were given pain medicine for your headache. Instead have someone else drive you home. Try to sleep when you get home. You should feel much better when you wake up.

  • Put heat on the back of your neck to help ease neck spasm.

How to prevent tension-type headaches

  • Figure out what is causing stress in your life. Learn new ways to handle your stress. Ideas include regular exercise, biofeedback, self-hypnosis, yoga, and meditation. Talk with your healthcare provider to find out more information about managing stress. Many books and digital media are also available on this subject.

  • Take time out at the first sign of a tension headache, if possible. Take yourself out of the stressful situation. Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit or lie down and let yourself relax. Heat and deep massage of the tight areas in the neck and shoulders may help ease muscle spasm. You may also get relief from a medicine such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, naproxen, or a prescribed muscle relaxant. But using these medicines too often may make headaches worse.

Follow-up care

Follow up with your healthcare provider, or as advised. Talk with your provider if you have frequent headaches. They can figure out a treatment plan. Ask if you can have medicine to take at home the next time you get a bad headache. This may keep you from having to visit the emergency department in the future. You may need to see a headache specialist (neurologist) if you continue to have headaches.

When to get medical advice

Call your healthcare provider right away if any of these occur:

  • Your head pain gets worse during sexual intercourse or strenuous activity

  • Your head pain doesn’t get better in 24 hours

  • You aren’t able to keep liquids down (repeated vomiting)

  • Fever of 100.4ºF (38ºC) or higher, or as advised by your provider

  • Stiff neck

  • Extreme drowsiness, confusion, or fainting

  • Dizziness or dizziness with spinning feeling (vertigo)

  • Weakness in an arm or leg or 1 side of your face

  • You have trouble speaking

  • Your vision changes

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