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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.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-06-07
Last reviewed: 2014-06-10
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.
Copyright ©1986-2015 Barton D. Schmitt, MD. All rights reserved.

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