What is Muscle Contraction Headache?

Muscle contraction headache is a type of tension headache that is associated with tightening of muscles in the head, which leads to the onset of pain. It is a common type of headache and may be triggered by several different factors.

As it is not a severe condition, diagnosis is only required if a more sinister condition is suspected due to the harshness of the symptoms. Most patients find that simple analgesic medications are able to provide effective pain relief from the headaches.


The exact cause of muscle contraction headache is not known, but there are a number of central and peripheral factors that are thought to be involved as triggers for the condition, such as:

  • Anxiety or stress
  • Dehydration
  • Excessive smoking, caffeine or alcohol consumption
  • Eye straining
  • Fatigue
  • Irregular meals
  • Poor posture

These triggers are thought to lead to contraction of the muscles and the build up of tension in the head, causing the headache pain.


Muscle contraction headache is associated with bilateral mild to moderate aching pain in the head and is linked to tightening of the neck muscles and increased pressure behind the eyes.

These symptoms usually resolve within a few hours but can sometimes last for a few days. The pain is uncomfortable but affected individuals are able to carry out daily activities as normal.


Muscle contraction headaches are common and can often be treated with over-the-counter simple analgesic medications without the involvement of a health practitioner.

However, diagnosis of the condition is useful to rule out other possible causes of the headaches, particularly if patients suffer from frequent headaches that have a significant impact on their quality of life. Any headaches that have suddenly presented or changed in nature should be discussed and considered for potentially severe causes that require specialized treatment.

The diagnosis can usually be made based upon a consultation of the medical and family history. It is important to discuss and recent changes to the diet, lifestyle or medications that may have led to symptoms of muscle contraction headache.


In the vast majority of cases, the pain from muscle contraction headaches can be relieved with simple analgesic medications, such as paracetamol, ibuprofen or aspirin. It is worth noting that frequent use of these medications may lead to medication overuse headache and patients that require pain relief for more than three days per week should seek further advice as to the cause of the headache.

The prevention of the headaches can be implemented with several lifestyle changes.  Avoidance of any triggers that are likely to be causing the headaches is the first step in preventing symptoms. Some activities such as yoga, exercise, massage and acupuncture have also been associated with a reduction in stress and the frequency of muscle contraction headaches.

It is useful for many patients to record symptoms, triggers and efficacy of treatments in a headache diary, which can help to identify patterns and guide treatment decisions in the future.

Types: Episodic or Chronic

There are two main types of muscle contraction headache: episodic tension and chronic tension headache. Characteristics of both include pressing, tightening or aching bilateral pain that is mild to moderate in severity and does not prevent individuals from partaking in activities, but they differ in the frequency of symptoms

Episodic tension headache involves at least 10 headaches experienced that last between 30 minutes and 7 days, with symptoms present for less than 15 days per month. Chronic tension headache affects individuals for more than 15 days per month for at least six months.


Further Reading

Last Updated: Aug 23, 2018

Yolanda Smith

Written by

Yolanda Smith

Yolanda graduated with a Bachelor of Pharmacy at the University of South Australia and has experience working in both Australia and Italy. She is passionate about how medicine, diet and lifestyle affect our health and enjoys helping people understand this. In her spare time she loves to explore the world and learn about new cultures and languages.


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