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Tension Headaches

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What Are the Symptoms of Tension Headaches?

People with tension headaches commonly report these symptoms:

  • Mild to moderate pain or pressure affecting the front, top or sides of the head
  • Headache occurring later in the day
  • Difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Disturbed concentration
  • Mild sensitivity to light or noise
  • General muscle aching

A tension headache may appear periodically (episodic, less than 15 days per month) or daily (chronic, more than 15 days per month). Chronic tension headaches may vary in intensity throughout the day, but the pain is almost always present.

Unlike migraine headaches, there are no associated neurological symptoms (such as muscle weakness, or blurred vision) in people with tension headaches. In addition, severe sensitivity to light or noise, stomach pain, nausea, and vomiting are not symptoms usually associated with tension headaches.

How Are Tension Headaches Treated?

The goals of treatment for tension headaches are to prevent further attacks and relieve any current pain. Prevention includes:

Over-the-counter (OTC) painkiller medications are often the first treatments recommended for tension headaches. Some of these painkillers can also be used to prevent headaches in people with chronic tension headaches.

If OTC pain relievers don't help, your doctor may recommend a prescription-strength pain reliever or a muscle relaxant.

Preventive treatments are drugs used to keep you from getting a tension headache. These include drugs like antidepressants, blood pressure medications, and anti-seizure medications. They are used daily even if you don’t have a headache, so that the overall amount of medication you end up using to treat headaches are diminished.

Keep in mind that medications don't cure headaches and that, over time, pain-relievers and other medications may lose their effectiveness. In addition, all medications have side effects. If you take medication regularly, including products you buy over-the-counter, discuss the risks and benefits with your doctor. Also, remember that pain medications are not a substitute for recognizing and dealing with the stressors that may be causing your headaches.

Regardless of the treatment, tension headaches are best treated when the symptoms first begin and are mild, before they become more frequent and painful.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by David T. Derrer, MD on February 23, 2014
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