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Tension-Type Headache

(Tension Headache)


Stephen D. Silberstein

, MD, Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University

Last full review/revision Aug 2021| Content last modified Aug 2021
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Tension-type headache causes mild generalized pain (usually viselike) without the incapacity, nausea, or photophobia associated with migraine.

Tension-type headaches may be episodic or chronic:

  • Episodic tension-type headaches occur < 15 days/month. Episodic tension-type headache is very common; most patients obtain relief with over-the-counter (OTC) analgesics and do not seek medical attention.

  • Chronic tension-type headaches occur ≥ 15 days/month.

Symptoms and Signs of Tension-Type Headache

The pain of a tension-type headache is usually mild to moderate and often described as viselike. These headaches originate in the occipital or frontal region bilaterally and spread over the entire head.

Potential triggers for chronic tension-type headache include

Episodic headaches may last 30 minutes to several days. They typically start several hours after waking and worsen as the day progresses. They rarely awaken patients from sleep.

Chronic headaches may vary in intensity throughout the day but are almost always present.

Diagnosis of Tension-Type Headache

  • Clinical evaluation

Diagnosis of tension-type headache is based on characteristic symptoms and a normal physical examination, which includes a neurologic examination Introduction to the Neurologic Examination The neurologic examination begins with careful observation of the patient entering the examination area and continues during history taking. The patient should be assisted as little as possible... read more . Potential triggers for chronic tension-type headache should be identified and treated.

Tension-type headache should be distinguished from a forme fruste of migraine Symptoms and Signs Migraine is an episodic primary headache disorder. Symptoms typically last 4 to 72 hours and may be severe. Pain is often unilateral, throbbing, worse with exertion, and accompanied by symptoms... read more , which many patients with migraine have; these headaches have only some features of migraine and resemble tension-type headache, but they are mild and respond to migraine-specific drugs.

If severe headaches are thought to be tension-type headaches, the diagnosis should be reconsidered because severe tension-type headaches are often migraines.

Pearls & Pitfalls

  • Reconsider the diagnosis of tension-type headache if headache is severe.

Treatment of Tension-Type Headache

  • Analgesics

  • Sometimes behavioral and psychologic interventions

  • For chronic tension-type headaches, amitriptyline

For most mild to moderate tension-type headaches, OTC analgesics (eg, aspirin, acetaminophen) can provide relief. Massaging the affected area may help.

Behavioral and psychologic interventions (eg, relaxation and stress management techniques) are often used and are effective, especially when combined with drug treatment.

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