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Tension Headache in Children

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Sep 3, 2023.

What do I need to know about tension headaches?

Tension headaches are often caused by tense head or neck muscles. The headache can last anywhere from 30 minutes to several days. Tension headaches usually do not cause any serious problems.

What causes a tension headache?

The following can cause muscle tension and trigger a tension headache:

  • Stress or anxiety
  • Eye strain or poor posture, such as from using a computer or watching television
  • Listening to loud music
  • Jaw or dental problems such as temporomandibular joint (TMJ), jaw clenching, or teeth grinding
  • Activities that cause your child's head to be held in one position for too long
  • Skipping a meal
  • Not enough sleep, or sleep apnea (brief periods of not breathing during sleep)
  • Food sensitivities, such as to gluten
  • In females, hormone changes, such as around a monthly period

What are the symptoms of a tension headache?

  • Dull, constant pain above your child's eyes and across the back of the head
  • Head pain that gets worse as the day goes on
  • Pain that may spread over your child's entire head and to the neck and shoulders
  • Tight neck or shoulder muscles
  • Head pain that is made worse by bright lights or loud noises

How is a tension headache diagnosed and treated?

Your child's healthcare provider will examine your child. Tell the provider about other health conditions your child has and medicines he or she takes. Your child may need any of the following to treat a tension headache:

  • NSAIDs , such as ibuprofen, help decrease swelling, pain, and fever. This medicine is available with or without a doctor's order. NSAIDs can cause stomach bleeding or kidney problems in certain people. If your child takes blood thinner medicine, always ask if NSAIDs are safe for him or her. Always read the medicine label and follow directions. Do not give these medicines to children younger than 6 months without direction from a healthcare provider.
  • Acetaminophen decreases pain and fever. It is available without a doctor's order. Ask how much to give your child and how often to give it. Follow directions. Read the labels of all other medicines your child uses to see if they also contain acetaminophen, or ask your child's doctor or pharmacist. Acetaminophen can cause liver damage if not taken correctly.
  • Treatment may be given for back, muscle, or posture problems. Your child may also need treatment for jaw or tooth problems.

What can I do to manage my child's symptoms?

  • Keep a headache record. Include when they start and stop and what made them better. Describe your child's symptoms, such as how the pain feels, where it is, and how bad it is. Record anything your child ate or drank for the past 24 hours before the headache. Bring the record to follow-up visits.
  • Apply heat as directed. Heat may help decrease headache pain and muscle spasms. Apply heat on the area for 20 to 30 minutes every 2 hours for as many days as directed. A warm bath may also help relieve muscle tension and spasms.
  • Apply ice as directed. Ice may help decrease headache pain. Use an ice pack or put crushed ice in a plastic bag. Cover it with a towel and place it on the area for 15 to 20 minutes every hour as directed.

What can I do to help my child prevent a tension headache?

  • Encourage your child to talk about stress or worry. Your child may be nervous about school or feel anxiety about a change, such as moving to a new house. You may be able to help prevent tension headaches by letting your child talk about his or her feelings.
  • Prevent muscle tension. Tell your child not to stay in one position for long periods of time. Your child should use a different pillow if he or she wakes up with sore neck and shoulder muscles. Help your child find ways to relax muscles, such as massage or resting in a quiet, dark room.
  • Prevent eye strain. Make sure your child has good lighting when he or she reads, sews, or does similar activities. Take your child in for a yearly eye exam. Ask about coatings applied to glasses that will help block UV rays and reduce light glare from electronics.
  • Help your child get enough sleep. Your child should get 8 to 10 hours of sleep each night. Help your child create a sleep schedule. Have your child go to bed and wake up at the same times each day. It may be helpful for your child to do something relaxing before bed. Do not let your child watch television right before bed.
  • Offer your child a variety of healthy foods. Healthy foods include fruits, vegetables, whole-grain breads, low-fat dairy products, beans, lean meats, and fish. Do not let your child eat foods that trigger headaches.
  • Encourage your child to exercise regularly. Exercise helps decrease stress and headaches. Ask about the best exercise plan for your child.
  • Have your child drink liquids as directed. Your child may need to drink more liquid to prevent dehydration. Dehydration can make a tension headache worse. Ask your child's healthcare provider how much liquid your child needs each day and which liquids are best for him or her. Have your child limit caffeine as directed. Caffeine may make a tension headache worse.
  • Talk to your adolescent about not smoking. Nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes and cigars can trigger a headache or make it worse. Do not smoke around your child or let anyone else smoke around your child. Secondhand smoke can also trigger a tension headache or make it worse. Ask your adolescent's healthcare provider for information if he or she currently smokes and needs help to quit. E-cigarettes or smokeless tobacco still contain nicotine. Talk to your adolescent's healthcare provider before he or she uses these products.

Treatment options

The following list of medications are in some way related to or used in the treatment of this condition.

View more treatment options

When should I seek immediate care?

  • Your child has a sudden headache that seems different or much worse than his or her usual headaches.
  • Your child has difficulty seeing, speaking, or moving.
  • Your child passes out, becomes confused, or has a seizure.
  • Your child has a headache, fever, and a stiff neck.

When should I contact my child's healthcare provider?

  • Your child's headaches continue to get worse.
  • Your child's headaches happen so often that they affect his or her ability to do normal activities.
  • Your child needs to take medicine more often than his or her healthcare provider recommends.
  • Your child's headaches get so bad that they cause him or her to vomit.
  • You have questions or concerns about your child's condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your child's care. Learn about your child's health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your child's healthcare providers to decide what care you want for your child. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.