Tension-Type Headaches

Overview of Tension-Type Headaches

Tension-type headaches are the most common type of headache. They are more common than migraine headaches (see Migraine Headaches) and yet like migraine headaches, the cause of tension-type headache is not completely understood. Chronic tension in the scalp, neck and jaw muscles does not seem to be the only cause of this type of head pain.

Tension-type headaches often start early in the day and the pain that usually gradually builds up can be mild, moderate or rarely severe. Even with severe pain, this type of headache is generally not indicative of any serious underlying disorder. 

Signs & Symptoms

Most often it is described as a dull, achy, tight band-like pain around the head which can cause the person difficulty in concentrating. Physical activity may aggravate the pain but not usually cause it to worsen. Some people also experience a sense of neck tightness or discomfort. 


Tension-type headaches are usually triggered by some type of environmental or internal stress involving family, other social relationships, or normal activities of daily living such as work and school. Skipping meals, inadequate sleep & physical activity or even poor posture can be potential triggers. Therefore, stress management or biofeedback may be used in an effort to reduce or prevent this type of headache as well as healthy lifestyle choices. 


Most often tension-type headache can be adequately managed if an over-the-counter pain reliever is taken early in the course of the headache. Persons with more severe tension-type headaches may need a prescription pain medication.

Caution is advised in not overusing any pain medication because this can lead to the development of chronic daily headaches or “rebound” headaches. Persons experiencing very frequent tension-type headache may need to discuss with their health care provider the use of a medication that will help decrease headache frequency. Certain anti-depressants may be tried for this indication.

Non-medication strategies such as rest, ice packs, or practicing relaxation techniques may be helpful alone in treating these headaches or can be used in conjunction with medication. 

How We Can Help

  • If you would like to be seen by our medical staff, please contact our Appointment Desk to schedule an appointment.
  • Also, our Advice Nurse service is available at no charge for all UC Davis students to discuss health concerns and the need for medical care.