Headache: Muscle Tension

What is a muscle tension headache?

A tension headache is a headache caused by tense muscles in the scalp or neck. Muscle tension headaches are a common kind of headache. These headaches give a feeling of tightness around the head. The neck muscles also become sore and tight. Tension headaches can be caused by staying in one position for a long time, such as reading, playing video games or using a computer. Many children get tension headaches as a reaction to stresses (such as pressure for better grades or family conflicts).

How long does it last?

Muscle tension headaches usually last from a few hours to a day and tend to return.

How can I take care of my child?

If your child has been checked by your healthcare provider and has muscle tension headaches, try the following to help ease the pain:

  • When a headache occurs, your child should lie down and relax.
  • Give acetaminophen or ibuprofen as soon as the headache starts. The medicine is more effective if it is started early.
  • A cold pack applied to the skin often helps.
  • Stretch and massage any tight neck muscles.
  • If something is bothering your child, help him talk about it and get it off his mind.

How can I prevent muscle tension headaches?

  • Teach your child not to skip meals. Doing so can bring on headaches.
  • See that your child gets regular exercise, which can release natural painkillers (endorphins).
  • Teach your child to take breaks from activities that require sustained concentration. Encourage your child to do relaxation exercises during the breaks.
  • Teach your child the importance of getting enough sleep.
  • If overachievement causes headaches, help your child get out of the fast track.

When should I call my child's healthcare provider?


  • The headache is severe AND constant.
  • Your child has trouble seeing, thinking, talking, or walking.
  • The neck is stiff.
  • Your child is acting very sick.

Call during office hours if:

  • Headaches are a recurrent problem for your child.
  • You think blocked sinuses may be causing the headache.
  • The headache has lasted more than 24 hours even though your child has taken pain medicines.
  • You have other concerns or questions.
Written by Barton D. Schmitt, MD, author of “My Child Is Sick”, American Academy of Pediatrics Books.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-06-07
Last reviewed: 2011-06-06
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
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