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What Does a Tension Headache Feel Like?

    What Does a Tension Headache Feel Like?

    Sometimes, as you go about your daily activities, headaches tend to get in the way. When you feel that pain, you often wonder: what type of headache am I experiencing? Before speculating that it’s associated with other serious conditions, think about tension headaches first. According to reports, tension-type headaches are the most common type of headache. But, what does a tension headache feel like?

    Headaches: Types, Causes, Remedies

    Tension Headaches, Explained

    When we say “tension headache” we are referring to the normal, day-to-day headache that we feel.

    Tension headaches also go by other names including muscle tension headaches, ordinary headaches, and stress headaches.

    Because of these varied names, the International Headache Society encouraged medical professionals to use the term “tension-type headaches.”

    To sum it up, tension-type headaches are the most common type of headache that people experience.

    You can describe it as a discomfort or pain (muscle tightness) in the head. However, some people also feel it in other parts, including the scalp and neck.

    What Does a Tension Headache Feel Like?

    For you to identify if the pain you’re feeling is a tension-type headache, it’s important to understand its signs and symptoms.

    First, people describe the pain as a “sense of tightness around the head.” Imagine this discomfort as a “tight hat-band” or “vise” feeling. Your neck and shoulder muscles may also feel tense, and when you touch them, they may be sore.

    Besides the descriptions above, you can also use the following guide to differentiate tension headaches from other types of headaches:

    • A tension-type headache has a slow onset.
    • The pain is dull and felt throughout the head (both sides). This is unlike a sinus headache where the foci of the pain are behind the brow or cheekbones. If you feel pain in or around your eye, you may be experiencing a cluster headache.
    • Tension headache pain is often steady, compared to the throbbing pain of a migraine.

    Finally, you might be wondering: does a tension headache feel like you want to vomit? The answer is no.

    A tension-type headache does not cause nausea or vomiting, and it usually doesn’t worsen with physical activity.

    How Long Do Tension Headaches Last?

    Another question you might be having now is: how long does a tension-type headache last?

    Generally, tension headaches last anywhere from 30 minutes to 7 days.

    The International Headache Society also came up with categories based on the frequency of occurrence of tension headaches:

    • If you experience less than 12 episodes of tension headaches in a year, you have what are called as infrequent episodes.
    • On the other hand, if you suffer from tension headaches once up to 14 times in a month on average, you have frequent episodes.
    • Lastly, if you experience tension headaches at least 15 times in one month on average, you may be having chronic episodes.

    Here’s an important note: While the headaches for infrequent and frequent episodes last from 30 minutes to 7 days, chronic episodes can last for hours and maybe continuous.

    Additionally, chronic episodes may result in mild nausea from time to time.

    what does a tension headache feel like

    Causes and Triggers of Tension Headaches

    After understanding what a tension headache feels like and how long they last, let’s talk about causes and triggers.

    The truth is, the cause of tension headaches is not yet completely understood.

    But experts have found things that may trigger its occurrence. Some of these triggers are:

    • Drinking alcohol
    • Physical or emotional stress
    • Anxiety or depression
    • Fatigue or overexertion
    • Poor posture
    • Consuming too much caffeine
    • Experiencing caffeine withdrawal
    • Excessive smoking
    • Dehydration
    • Jaw clenching and teeth grinding or other dental conditions
    • Eyestrain
    • Illnesses like cold, flu, and sinus infections
    • Lack of sleep
    • Lack of exercise
    • Regular exposure to loud noise

    Does a tension headache feel like happening? Perhaps you have experienced any or some of the triggers above.

    You can try to prevent tension-type headaches by working your way around these triggers.

    Home Remedies

    In the meantime, to treat tension headaches at home, you can try the following measures:

    • Apply cool and warm compress. At the onset of your headache, place a cool compress over your forehead and a warm compress at the back of your neck.
    • Drink water. Does a tension headache feel like happening? Try to drink a glass of water first and see how it goes. Perhaps you’re a little dehydrated; remember that dehydration may sometimes trigger headaches.
    • Take over-the-counter painkillers. Medications like ibuprofen or acetaminophen may help. However, please do not take these medications for more than 2 or 3 times a week, as they can result in rebound headaches. Remember that medications are best taken when they’re prescribed by your doctor.
    • Manage stress. If you feel that stress caused your headache, perform some relaxation techniques. Consider doing yoga or having a massage. You can also try to relax by doing some breathing exercises. For some people, exercising also helps.
    • Rest. When you feel that dull pain all over your head, look for a quiet room to rest. It might also help if the room is dark, so turn off the light or draw the curtains in. If you’re at work, be sure to take a break from time to time.
    • Mind your posture. How’s your posture lately? Could your poor posture be triggering your headache? If this is the case, be mindful of your posture, whatever you’re doing – working, reading, or simply idly sitting.
    • Make Some Lifestyle Changes. The American Headache Society also suggests making changes in your lifestyle to help manage tension headaches. Examples of these changes include: sleeping and waking up at the same time each day, doing exercise for 30 minutes daily, and not skipping meals.

    How to Manage a Headache Without Medication

    When To Call a Doctor

    Regardless of how long your tension headaches last, call the doctor if:

    • You feel like you’re having the “worst headache of your life.”
    • Problems in your vision, speech, movement, and balance occur.
    • The headache starts very suddenly.
    • The headache happens with repeated vomiting.
    • You develop a high fever.
    • Previously effective treatments no longer work.
    • The patterns of your headache changed.
    • You experience side-effects from your medications.

    Also, if you are pregnant or you suspect that you are pregnant, call your doctor as well. This is so you can be sure that the medication will not harm you or your baby.

    Key Takeaways

    Sometimes, the answer to the question: how long do tension headaches last? depends on the home remedies you perform.

    Experts advise people to keep a headache diary, wherein you can write details like the supposed trigger, duration, frequency, and of course the effective remedies you performed.

    This way, when you consult your doctor, you have all the information ready.

    Learn more about Headaches here.


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    Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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    Written by Lorraine Bunag, R.N. Updated Aug 25, 2020
    Fact Checked by Hello Doctor Medical Panel
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