What is a Muscle Tension Headache?

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  • Written By: Soo Owens
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 22 March 2019
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A muscle tension headache is one of the most common types of headache, if not the most common. It is also referred to as a stress headache or muscle contraction headache and typically is the result of muscle tension developing in the back of the neck and scalp. Tension headaches are capable of producing a moderate pressure-like pain to a more severe throbbing pain.

Although they are most common among adults and adolescents, these headaches can occur in people of any age. Various studies suggest that anywhere from 30 to 80 percent of all adults experience occasional muscle tension headaches. Less than 5 percent of all adults have been found to suffer from chronic tension headaches.

A muscle tension headache typically manifests in one of two fashions. It can be either episodic or chronic. Often occurring in the middle of the day, the episodic tension headaches usually begin with a gradual pressure-like pain and last four to six hours, though some can last much longer, reaching a low to moderate amount of pain. Episodic tension-type headaches are those that occur fewer than 15 days per month.


A chronic muscle tension headache is defined as one occurring as frequently as 15 days or more per month. As the frequency of the tension headache increases, so does the severity of the headache, often quite significantly. The pain accompanying a chronic muscle tension headache surpasses the moderate pressure associated with episodic headaches and becomes more of a throbbing sensation, affecting the front, top or sides of the head. Though frequently occurring over a long period of time, chronic tension headaches do not cause neurological symptoms or affect strength, balance or vision. It is also possible for adults who are experiencing migraines to simultaneously suffer from a chronic muscle tension headache; this is referred to as a mixed headache.

The causes of muscle tension headaches are numerous. This type of headache is not attributable to any genetic traits and does not run in families. In most cases, tension headaches are the result of muscle tension in the back of the neck and scalp. This can be the result of a lack of proper rest or even poor posture, or it can result from a muscle response to emotional or mental stress, including depression.

Usually, a tension-type headache is triggered by any number of environmental or internal stresses, either known or unknown to the sufferer. An isolated stressful incident or buildup can cause an episodic muscle tension headache. An exposure to stress on a daily basis has a tendency to lead to chronic tension-type headaches.

Tension headaches are seldom accompanied by any physical warning signs such as nausea, vomiting, stomach pain or severe sensitivity to light or noise in the same fashion that migraines are. A muscle tension headache exhibits several symptoms, though, such as irritability, chronic fatigue, muscle aching and a mild sensitivity to light or noise. Depending on the severity of the headache, the number of symptoms might vary.

Treatment options for tension headaches can be mild in cases of episodic headaches and include self-care treatment and light medication. Chronic muscle tension headaches typically require more serious measures to deal with the source of the problem. These typically include counseling, stress management and biofeedback, as well as medications such as antidepressants or anxiety-reducing medications.



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