What Causes Tension Headaches?

Lindsay Knake

| 3 min read

Lindsay Knake is a brand journalist for Blue Cross B...

The tight band of a tension headache wrapping around your temples is difficult to deal with. 
These common headaches affect 70% percent of people during their lives, according to the Cleveland Clinic, and generally impact women more often than men.
Tension headache symptoms include:
  • A dull, aching pain that isn’t localized
  • Tightness in the neck and shoulders
  • A feeling of pressure across the forehead or entire head
Tension headaches can last for 30 minutes to several days. You can have occasional tension headaches or chronic tension headaches, which occur 15 or more days a month for at least three months.

What causes tension headaches?

Doctors are not sure what causes headaches, according to Harvard Health. Blood vessels in the head, neck, jaw, and scalp can signal pain. This pain can be triggered by:
  • Stress
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle tightness in the neck, shoulders, and jaw
  • Neck strain from looking down to read or view your phone
  • Sleep disruption or disorders like sleep apnea
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Alcohol use
  • Sinus infections

How do I deal with tension headaches?

Tension headaches are uncomfortable and can disrupt daily life. There are simple, at home treatments to relieve most tension headaches:
  • Take note of triggers: If you’re noticing tension headaches from phone use, for example, you can learn to adjust how you view your phone and use it less.
  • Take over-the-counter pain medication: Tylenol and NSAIDs are common pain relievers for tension headaches.
  • Caffeine in small doses: Over-the-counter pain medications paired with a small amount of caffeine can relieve headaches as caffeine narrows the blood vessels around the brain, according to WebMD. Too much caffeine, however, can disrupt sleep and contribute to rebound headaches.
  • Hot or cold presses: A warm or cold cloth and ice pack can provide relief during a headache.
  • Don’t skip meals: Eat regular, nutritious meals and snacks throughout the day.
  • Rest: If you can, take a nap or give yourself a break.
  • Manage your stress: Meditation, yoga, exercise, and other techniques relax your muscles and reduce your stress, which can help with ongoing tension headaches.

How are tension headaches different than migraines?

Tension headaches can be difficult to discern from migraines, and people can have both. Migraines typically include nausea, pain in one spot of the head, visual disturbances, and an aura. Someone with a severe tension headache can have sensitivity to light and sound, which also is a symptom of a migraine.
If you have frequent tension headaches that disrupt your daily life, change suddenly, or don’t get better with common treatment, that is a sign to talk to your primary care provider.
MI Blues Perspectives is sponsored by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, a nonprofit, independent licensee of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association