SymptomsBy Mayo Clinic staff
Signs and symptoms of a tension headache include:
- Dull, aching head pain
- The sensation of tightness or pressure across your forehead or on the sides and back of your head
- Tenderness on your scalp, neck and shoulder muscles
- Occasionally, loss of appetite
A tension headache can last from 30 minutes to an entire week. You may experience these headaches only occasionally, or nearly all the time. If your headaches occur 15 or more days a month for at least three months, they're considered chronic. If you have headaches that occur fewer than 15 times in a month, your headaches are considered episodic. However, people with frequent episodic headaches are at a higher risk of developing chronic headaches.
The headache is usually described as mild to moderately intense. The severity of the pain varies from one person to another, and from one headache to another in the same person.
Tension headaches can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from migraines, but unlike some forms of migraine, tension headache usually isn't associated with visual disturbances (blind spots or flashing lights), nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, weakness or numbness on one side of the body, or slurred speech. And, while physical activity typically aggravates migraine pain, it doesn't make tension headache pain worse. An increased sensitivity to light or sound can occur with a tension headache, but these aren't common symptoms.
When to see a doctor
Make an appointment with your doctor
If tension headache disrupts your life or you find that you need to take medication for your headaches more than twice a week, make an appointment to see your doctor.
Even if you have a history of headaches, see your doctor if the pattern changes or your headaches suddenly feel different. Occasionally, headaches may indicate a serious medical condition, such as a brain tumor or rupture of a weakened blood vessel (aneurysm).
When to seek emergency help
If you have any of these signs or symptoms, seek emergency care:
- Abrupt, severe headache, which may be like a thunderclap
- Headache with a fever, stiff neck, mental confusion, seizures, double vision, weakness, numbness or speaking difficulties
- Headache after a head injury, especially if the headache gets worse
- Chronic, progressive headache that is precipitated by coughing, exertion, straining or a sudden movement
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