Muscle Contraction Tension Headache 

Updated: May 21, 2019
Author: Syed M S Ahmed, MD; Chief Editor: Tarakad S Ramachandran, MBBS, MBA, MPH, FAAN, FACP, FAHA, FRCP, FRCPC, FRS, LRCP, MRCP, MRCS 

Overview

Background

Tension-type headache (TTH) represents one of the most costly diseases because of its very high prevalence. TTH is the most common type of headache, and it is classified as episodic (ETTH) or chronic (CTTH). It had various ill-defined names in the past including tension headache, stress headache, muscle contraction headache, psychomyogenic headache, ordinary headache, and psychogenic headache. See Medscape's Headache Resource Center for more information.

The International Headache Society (IHS) defines TTH more precisely and differentiates between the episodic and the chronic types.

Episodic tension-type headache

The following is a modified outline of the IHS diagnostic criteria:

  • At least 10 previous headaches fulfilling the following criteria; number of days with such headache fewer than 15 per month

  • Headaches lasting from 30 minutes to 7 days

  • At least 2 of the following pain characteristics:

    • Pressing/tightening (nonpulsating) quality

    • Mild or moderate intensity (may inhibit but does not prohibit activities)

    • Bilateral location

    • No aggravation from climbing stairs or similar routine physical activity

  • Both of the following:

    • No nausea or vomiting

    • Photophobia and phonophobia absent or only one present

  • Secondary headache types not suggested or confirmed

Chronic tension-type headache

See the list below:

  • Average headache frequency of more than 15 days per month for more than 6 months fulfilling the following criteria

  • At least 2 of the following pain characteristics:

    • Pressing/tightening (nonpulsating) quality

    • Mild or moderate intensity (may inhibit but does not prohibit activities)

    • Bilateral location

    • No aggravation from climbing stairs or similar routine physical activity

  • Both of the following:

    • No vomiting

    • No more than one of the following: nausea, photophobia, or phonophobia

  • Secondary headache types not suggested or confirmed

Pathophysiology

Pathogenesis of TTH is complex and multifactorial, with contributions from both central and peripheral factors. In the past, various mechanisms including vascular, muscular (ie, constant overcontraction of scalp muscles), and psychogenic factors were suggested. The more likely cause of these headaches is believed now to be abnormal neuronal sensitivity and pain facilitation, not abnormal muscle contraction.

Various evidence suggests that, like migraine, TTH is associated with exteroceptive suppression (ES2), abnormal platelet serotonin, and decreased cerebrospinal fluid beta-endorphin. In one study, plasma levels of substance P, neuropeptide Y, and vasoactive intestinal peptide were found to be normal in patients with CTTH and unrelated to the headache state.

Several concurrent pathophysiologic mechanisms may be responsible for TTH; according to Jensen, extracranial myofascial nociception is one of them. Headache is not related directly to muscle contraction, and possible hypersensitivity of neurons in the trigeminal nucleus caudalis has been suggested.

Bendtsen described central sensitization at the level of the spinal dorsal horn/trigeminal nucleus due to prolonged nociceptive inputs from pericranial myofascial tissues.[1] The central neuroplastic changes may affect regulation of peripheral mechanisms and can lead to increased pericranial muscle activity or release of neurotransmitters in myofascial tissues. This central sensitization may be maintained even after the initial eliciting factors have been normalized, resulting in conversion of ETTH into CTTH.

Further research is necessary to understand and clarify the mechanisms of TTH. Research may lead to the development of more specific and effective management in the future.

Epidemiology

Frequency

TTH is the most common primary headache syndrome.

Rasmussen et al reported a lifetime prevalence of TTH of 69% in men and 88% in women in the Danish population.[2] The patient may experience more than one primary headache syndrome. In one study by Ulrich et al, the 1-year prevalence of TTH was the same among individuals with and without migraine.[3]

Sex

Women are slightly more likely to be affected than men.

  • The female-to-male ratio for TTH is approximately 1.4:1.

  • In CTTH, female preponderance is 1.9:1.

Age

TTH can occur at any age, but onset during adolescence or young adulthood is common. It can begin in childhood.

 

Presentation

History

Tension-type headaches (TTHs) are characterized by pain that is usually mild or moderate in severity and bilateral in distribution. Unilateral pain may be experienced by 10-20% of patients. Headache is a constant, tight, pressing, or bandlike sensation in the frontal, temporal, occipital, or parietal area (with frontal and temporal regions most common).

  • Ulrich et al reported that 82% of TTHs last less than 24 hours.[3]

  • The deep steady ache differs from the typical throbbing quality of migraine headache.

    • Prodrome and aura are absent.

    • Occasionally, the headache may be throbbing or unilateral, but most patients do not report photophobia, sonophobia, or nausea, which commonly are associated with migraine.

  • Some patients may have neck, jaw, or temporomandibular joint discomfort.

Physical

Patients with TTH have normal findings on general and neurologic examinations.

Some patients may have tender spots or taut bands in the pericranial or cervical muscles (trigger points).

Causes

Various precipitating factors may cause TTH in susceptible individuals. One half of patients with TTH identify stress or hunger as a precipitating factor.

  • Stress - Usually occurs in the afternoon after long stressful work hours

  • Sleep deprivation

  • Uncomfortable stressful position and/or bad posture

  • Irregular meal time (hunger)

  • Eyestrain

 

DDx

Differential Diagnoses

 

Workup

Laboratory Studies

The diagnosis of tension-type headache (TTH) is clinical. As with the other primary headaches, no specific diagnostic test is available for TTH.

Occasionally, studies may be required to exclude secondary headache disorders.

Imaging Studies

Neuroimaging studies are important to rule out secondary causes of headache, including neoplasms and cerebral hemorrhage.

MRI imaging shows the greatest detail of cerebral structures and is especially useful in evaluating the posterior fossa.

CT scan with contrast is a viable alternative but is inferior to MRI for viewing structures in the posterior fossa.

Neuroimaging is indicated if the headaches are atypical in any way or if they are associated with abnormalities in the neurologic examination.

Other Tests

Consider CSF fluid analysis (lumbar puncture) if concerned about meningitis. 

 

Treatment

Medical Care

Management of TTH consists of pharmacotherapy, psychophysiologic therapy, and physical therapy.

  • Treatment of headache must be tailored for individual patients.

  • Recognition of comorbid illness is essential. Migraine may be associated with TTH, and management overlaps. Other associated conditions may include depression, anxiety, and emotional or adjustment disorders.

  • Management of CTTH with a combination of tricyclic antidepressant medication and stress management therapy may result in a better outcome than monotherapy.[4]

Pharmacotherapy consists of abortive therapy (to stop or reduce severity of the individual attack) and long-term preventive therapy. Preventive drugs are the main therapy for CTTH, but they seldom are needed for ETTH.

  • These headaches (especially ETTH) generally respond to simple over-the-counter (OTC) analgesics such as paracetamol (ie, acetaminophen), ibuprofen, aspirin, or naproxen.

  • If treatment is unsatisfactory, the addition of caffeine or use of prescription drugs is recommended. If possible, avoid use of barbiturates or opiate agonists.

  • Also discourage overuse of all symptomatic analgesics because of the risk of dependence, abuse, and development of chronic daily headache.

  • Fiorinal with codeine is generally significantly more effective than placebo or Fiorinal alone. The combination is also significantly better than codeine alone in relieving pain and maintaining ability to perform daily activities. However, Fiorinal with codeine is not first-line therapy and carries a significant risk of abuse.

Consider preventive medications if the headaches are frequent (>2 attacks per wk), of long duration (>3-4 h), or severe enough to cause significant disability or overuse of abortive medication.

  • Amitriptyline (Elavil) and nortriptyline (Pamelor) are the most frequently used tricyclic antidepressants.

  • The selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Paxil), and sertraline (Zoloft) also are used commonly by many physicians. In a double-blind placebo-controlled trial conducted by Saper et al of fluoxetine in patients with chronic daily headache and migraine, it was reported to be helpful.[5]

  • Other antidepressants such as doxepin, desipramine, protriptyline, and buspirone also can be used. According to Cohen, protriptyline may be comparable in effectiveness to amitriptyline in CTTH without producing drowsiness and weight gain.

  • As reported by Bendtsen et al, in one double-blind trial that compared citalopram to amitriptyline and a placebo, patients on citalopram demonstrated lower headache scores than those on placebo, but amitriptyline was significantly more effective.[6]

  • Tizanidine may improve inhibitory function in the central nervous system and can provide pain relief. One recent study by Saper et al provides support for the efficacy of tizanidine in the prophylaxis of chronic daily headache.[7] Currently the use of tizanidine remains investigational in the treatment of this disorder.

Physical therapy techniques include hot or cold applications, positioning, stretching exercises, traction, massage, ultrasound therapy, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), and manipulations.

  • Heat, massage, and stretching can be used to alleviate excess muscle contraction and pain.

  • Cranial electrotherapy stimulation is different from TENS, is safe, and may be effective in alleviating the pain intensity of TTH. It may be considered as an alternative to long-term analgesic use.

Psychophysiologic therapy includes reassurance, counseling, relaxation therapy, stress management programs, and biofeedback techniques. With these modalities of treatment, both frequency and severity of chronic headache may be reduced.

  • In a few studies, such as that by Holroyd et al, benefits from cognitive-behavioral therapy and biofeedback therapy have been reported.[4]

  • Biofeedback may be helpful in some patients when combined with medications.

  • One prospective study of TTH in an elderly population suggested that relaxation therapy may be an effective intervention.

  • The following various minimally invasive techniques may provide pain relief:

    • Trigger point injections

    • Greater or lesser occipital nerve blocks

    • Auriculotemporal nerve block

    • Supraorbital nerve block

    • Botulinum toxin injection in the pericranial muscle

    • Other alternative treatments: In one study, Biondi and Portuesi suggested that acupuncture results are difficult to assess and that acupuncture should be reserved for selected patients.[8]

Consultations

Psychiatry consultations: CTTH can mask or be associated with comorbid conditions such as depression, anxiety, or other serious emotional disorders.

Diet

Balanced meals

Activity

These nonpharmacologic methods have shown improvement of central nervous-system related symptoms:

  • Regular exercise

  • Adequate sleep: The patient should maintain a regular sleep schedule.

  • Relaxation training[9]

 

Medication

Medication Summary

The goals of pharmacotherapy for tension-type headaches (TTHs) are to relieve the headache, reduce morbidity, and prevent complications.

Analgesics

Class Summary

These agents can be used for abortive therapy.

Acetaminophen (Tylenol, Aspirin Free Anacin, Feverall, Tempra)

First choice for treatment of headache, especially during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)

Class Summary

These agents inhibit inflammatory reactions and pain by decreasing activity of cyclooxygenase, which is responsible for prostaglandin synthesis. They generally are used in mild to moderately severe headaches; however, they also may be effective for severe headaches.

Ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil)

First choice for treatment of headache, especially during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Naproxen sodium (Anaprox, Naprelan)

First choice for treatment of headache, especially during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Antidepressants

Class Summary

These drugs increase the synaptic concentration of serotonin and/or norepinephrine in CNS by inhibiting their reuptake by the presynaptic neuronal membrane.

Cymbalta can also be helpful for patients who have coexisting depression.

Nortriptyline (Pamelor, Aventyl HCl)

Has demonstrated effectiveness in treatment of pain.

Amitriptyline (Elavil)

Has demonstrated effectiveness in treatment of pain.

Serotonin reuptake inhibitors

Class Summary

These agents specifically inhibit presynaptic reuptake of serotonin. May be considered as an alternative to TCAs.

Fluoxetine (Prozac)

Has potent specific 5-HT uptake inhibition with fewer anticholinergic and cardiovascular adverse effects than TCAs.

Sertraline (Zoloft)

Atypical nontricyclic antidepressant with potent specific 5-HT uptake inhibition and fewer anticholinergic and cardiovascular adverse effects than TCAs.

Paroxetine (Paxil)

Atypical nontricyclic antidepressant with potent specific 5-HT uptake inhibition and fewer anticholinergic and cardiovascular adverse effects than TCAs.

Electrolyte supplements

Class Summary

Electrolytes such as magnesium may help in the treatment of tension headache.

Magnesium chloride (Slow-Mag, Mag-Delay)

Magnesium metabolism may have a significant role in both the etiology and the treatment of muscle contraction tension headache.

 

Follow-up

Patient Education

Advise the patient with tension-type headaches (TTHs) to take the following actions:

  • Avoid stressful situations if possible

  • Maintain a regular sleep schedule

  • Exercise regularly

  • Eat balanced meals and remain well hydrated

  • Avoid uncomfortable stressful positions and bad posture

  • Avoid eyestrain

  • Try biofeedback and relaxation techniques including meditation

  • Discuss with dentist regarding a mouth if bruxsim contributing to headache

For excellent patient education resources, visit eMedicineHealth's Headache Center. Also, see eMedicineHealth's patient education articles Causes and Treatments of Migraine and Related Headaches, Tension Headache, and Chronic Pain.

 

Questions & Answers

Overview

What is tension-type headache (TTH)?

What are the HIS diagnostic criteria for episodic tension-type headache (TTH)?

What are the HIS diagnostic criteria for chronic tension-type headache (TTH)?

What is the pathophysiology of tension-type headache (TTH)?

What is the prevalence of tension-type headache (TTH)?

What are the sexual predilections of tension-type headache (TTH)?

Which age groups have the highest prevalence of tension-type headache (TTH)?

Presentation

Which clinical history findings are characteristic of tension-type headache (TTH)?

Which physical findings are characteristic of tension-type headache (TTH)?

What causes tension-type headache (TTH)?

DDX

What are the differential diagnoses for Muscle Contraction Tension Headache?

Workup

What is the role of lab tests in the workup of tension-type headache (TTH)?

What is the role of imaging studies in the workup of tension-type headache (TTH)?

What is the role of lumbar puncture in the workup of tension-type headache (TTH)?

Treatment

What is the role of minimally invasive therapies in the treatment of tension-type headache (TTH)?

How is tension-type headache (TTH) treated?

What is the role of medications in the treatment of tension-type headache (TTH)?

What is the role of physical therapy (PT) in the treatment of tension-type headache (TTH)?

What is the role of behavioral therapies in the treatment of tension-type headache (TTH)?

Which specialist consultations are beneficial to patients with tension-type headache (TTH)?

Which activity modifications are used in the treatment of tension-type headache (TTH)?

Medications

What is the role of medications in the treatment tension-type headache (TTH)?

Which medications in the drug class Electrolyte supplements are used in the treatment of Muscle Contraction Tension Headache?

Which medications in the drug class Serotonin reuptake inhibitors are used in the treatment of Muscle Contraction Tension Headache?

Which medications in the drug class Antidepressants are used in the treatment of Muscle Contraction Tension Headache?

Which medications in the drug class Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are used in the treatment of Muscle Contraction Tension Headache?

Which medications in the drug class Analgesics are used in the treatment of Muscle Contraction Tension Headache?

Follow-up

What is included in patient education about tension-type headache (TTH)?