Tension headaches are fairly common, but many people aren’t quite sure why they arise or what to do about them when they do. Symptoms typically include aching head pain, scalp tenderness, and pressure centered in the forehead, sides, and back of the head. It is helpful to understand the causes and treatments of tension headaches if you or someone you know is experiencing them.

Cause: Stress

The most common cause of a tension headache is stress. Emotional disturbances can leave you vulnerable to a wide range of symptoms. A tough day at work, an unexpected bill, or an argument can cause an intense amount of stress that can trigger a tension headache.

PeopleImages / Getty Images

PeopleImages / Getty Images


Cause: Fatigue

If you've been burning the candle from both ends and getting little sleep, you are at risk of tension headaches. If you're trying to work after only getting a few hours of sleep, you are likely to experience at least a mild headache as the day progresses. Some people might suffer from more severe headaches, especially if there are other factors such as stress.


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Cause: Eye Strain

If you've been straining your eyes to work on your laptop or read the small print, you might wind up with a serious tension headache. In fact, if you tend to get these headaches periodically or even frequently, your doctor will likely recommend you get your eyes checked. You might need glasses or a new prescription for stronger lenses. If you have to read a lot of data for work, it's a good idea to take mini breaks every half hour to give your eyes a rest.


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Cause: Cold or Sinus Infection

Tension headaches walk hand-in-glove with colds and sinus infections. A headache is a common symptom of cold and sinus infection. While a cold needs to run its course before general symptoms subside, a sinus infection may require medication. If you attempt to work or perform chores while you're suffering from a cold or sinus infection, you're at even greater risk for experiencing a tension headache.


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Cause: Caffeine

Many of our favorite beverages -- coffee, tea, and soda -- contain caffeine. Some people are sensitive to caffeine and might suffer from a headache after drinking beverages such as coffee. A tension headache can also occur if a person drinks too much coffee for their system to handle. Furthermore, if a regular coffee or tea drinker suddenly stops indulging in their daily dose of caffeine, they are at risk for tension headaches, as well.


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Treatment: Over-the-Counter Headache Medication

If you only suffer from occasional tension headaches, you can take over-the-counter medication to alleviate your headache pain. If, however, you experience these types of headaches more frequently, you should visit your doctor to try to pinpoint an underlying cause. Doctors warn that taking over-the-counter medication too often can lead to rebound headaches. Moreover, using these medications is a reactive rather than preventative approach.


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Treatment: Rest

If you think your headache is due to fatigue or certain types of stress, you might just need some good old-fashioned rest. Fatigue and stress take both a mental and physical toll on the body. A tension headache could be your mind's way of telling you it needs a rest. As soon as possible, take the time to get the sleep you need. Upon waking, you'll feel and function much better.


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Treatment: Drink Water

If you're not getting all the water you need, you're at risk of a headache. Alcohol and caffeine-rich drinks do not count, as they can have dehydrating effects. If you're feeling tired, a glass of cold water can perk you up and help you get through those last couple hours of work.


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Treatment: Stretching and Walking

If your tension headache arose while you were staring into your computer screen or sitting all day at your desk, you might be able to alleviate it simply by moving around, stretching, or taking a walk. The body can get stiff and tense after sitting in the same position for too long. Movement gets your blood flowing and also gives your brain a break. If your job requires sitting at a desk, be sure to stand up periodically throughout the day.


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Treatment: Manage Stress

Managing stress is difficult for many people. Some benefit by working with a counselor. Recurrent or chronic stress can require anxiety or anti-depressant medications. You may also be able to reduce your stress and, hopefully, eliminate the headaches it causes by drinking herbal teas that contain chamomile, exercising, or doing yoga. Stress can lead to other negative health problems, so it's important to manage it effectively.


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This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.