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Tension headache in older children

What is tension headache?

Headache is a common problem presented to GPs and neurologists. The most common type is tension headache. This is characterised by mild to moderate tightening or pressing feeling often evenly spread on the head.

Tension type headaches are often caused by stress, fatigue or sitting in one position for a long time, as when in front of a computer. They can last for as little as 30 minutes or as long as 7 days. In rare cases they can last longer.

Generally a tension headache hurts on both sides of your head and is pressure pain, or a steady ache.


Your doctor has assessed your headache and has diagnosed tension headache. Headaches like this can come and go or may last for many days or weeks.

Tension headache is not dangerous and doesn’t happen because there is anything serious wrong. Lots of people have tension headache and live with it. However it can be difficult to do all the things you want to when you get this sort of headache.

If you haven’t already, you will be asked to complete a headache diary for 8 weeks. This involves recording how often you have a headache, how longs it lasts and anything you do or take to ease it.

How is it treated?

Normally simple medicines such as ibuprofen and paracetamol (Calpol) will be enough to treat this type of headache. For others however this may not be enough. In this case you may be referred to a physiotherapist for an assessment for acupuncture. This has been shown to be very helpful in treating and preventing tension headache.

What else can help?

Behavioural management is about learning what you can do to help your headache. For example, if your trigger is sleep deprivation, then getting enough sleep helps. Other things which can help are:

  • eating and drinking water regularly
  • taking regular exercise
  • practising relaxation exercises

What is stress?

Everyone experiences stress. Our bodies are designed to feel stress and react to it. It keeps us alert and ready to avoid danger. However when stress persists the body can react and problems such as headaches can occur. The key to coping with stress is identifying stressors in your life, learning ways to reduce stress and managing stress.

Stress is your reaction to any change that requires you to adjust or respond. It’s important to remember that you can control stress, because stress comes from how you respond to stressful events.

What causes stress?

Emotional stress is one of the most common triggers of tension headaches. During stressful events certain chemicals in the brain are released to combat the situation (known as the ‘fight or flight’ response).

Stress can be caused by anything that requires you to adjust to a change in your environment. Your body reacts to these changes with physical and emotional responses. We all have our own ways of coping with change, so the causes of stress can be different for each person. Daily stress such as from school or studying can lead to chronic tension headaches. Treatment for chronic tension headaches usually therefore involves stress management.

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Please note this is a generic information sheet relating to care at Sheffield Children’s. The details in this resource may not necessarily reflect treatment at other hospitals. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professionals’ instructions. If this resource relates to medicines, please read it alongside the medicine manufacturer’s patient information leaflet. If you have specific questions about how this resource relates to your child, please ask your doctor.

Resource number: PT15

Resource Type: Article

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