Headache in the Back of the Head: Where It Comes From and How to Relieve It

Updated November 25, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Do you have a headache in the back of your head? Does it feel like the muscles of your neck and scalp are tight and full of tension? Maybe you even feel like your head is being squeezed? You might have a tension headache, commonly referred to as a stress headache.

Although tension headaches usually don’t indicate any serious medical issues, they can still be annoying, painful, and keep you from enjoying life as much as you should. In this article, we’ll go over exactly what tension headaches are, their causes and symptoms, and various treatment options including ways to lower stress, such as online therapy. We’ll also discuss which headache pain symptoms may indicate that you should see a doctor.

What Is a Tension Headache?

Tension headaches are one of the most common types of headaches, along with primary headaches, and they can occur in about 75% to 80% of the adult population. In addition, about 75% of teens have experienced a headache by age 15. 

This tension type headache generally results from emotional stress. Tension headaches are characterized by a squeezing, dull pain on the sides and back of the head, and they typically last anywhere from 20 minutes to a couple of hours.

Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, and Prevention of Tension Headaches

Below you’ll find more details relating to the symptoms, potential causes, treatment options, and preventive measures for tension headaches.

Symptoms

The list of symptoms associated with tension headaches may include: dull, non-throbbing pain and tightness of the scalp and stiff neck. Those who experience persistent headaches may also have some nausea. Sometimes, tension headaches are accompanied by irritability, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, muscle aches, and mild sensitivity to light and noise.

Causes

Causes of tension headaches tend to include:

  • Stress

  • Anxiety

  • Hunger

  • Anger

  • Depression

  • Fatigue

  • Problems with the neck and/or jaw

  • Eyestrain

  • Poor posture

  • Alcohol

  • Substance use

  • Low iron levels

  • Dehydration

  • Smoking

  • A cold, the flu, or a sinus infection

Treatment

Most tension or stress headaches can be treated at home. Rest and over-the-counter pain relief medication such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen (aspirin shouldn’t be taken by teens under the age of 15) may be enough to make a tension headache go away. In some cases, you might want to use an ice pack or a muscle relaxant to release the tension. Caffeine can be helpful, too.

Gentle yoga can also be a good way to treat tension headaches. With its focus on deep breathing, relaxation, and stretching the muscles, it can release the tension in your head and neck. There are many online yoga flows specifically focused on neck tension and immediate relief from headaches. Plus, once you’ve gone through a couple of these yoga stretches, you may have a tool you can come back to time and again. Often, these types of stretches can be very simple and can be done anywhere, anytime, so you may find a way to handle tension headaches even if you’re at school or work.

Prevention

To prevent tension headaches, it can be important to have healthy ways to handle stress. Engaging with your creativity by drawing, painting, writing, journaling, or otherwise creating can be a wonderful way to decrease stress. You can also spend time with friends, family, and pets. Exercise, even if just a short walk around the block, can also lower stress levels. Hobbies like hiking, fishing, and martial arts are just a few more awesome choices for stress relief. 

Good nutrition can also be a way to ensure the health of your brain.

If you struggle to maintain healthy stress levels and frequently find yourself feeling overwhelmed, it may be wise to speak with a therapist. A therapist can help you get to the root of the issue, and they’ll also have plenty of suggestions for stress management and coping skills. Seeing a therapist can help you in many areas of life.

Living a healthy lifestyle can help quite a bit with most headaches as well. A healthy lifestyle involves fueling your body with healthy food, drinking plenty of water, exercising daily, and getting sufficient sleep each night. Relaxation techniques and biofeedback can be effective in preventing tension or stress headaches, too. 

Finally, since eye strain from looking at screens can lead to tension headaches, be sure to look away from screens every 20 minutes or take a longer break from screen time if possible.

What If My Head Hurts When I Lay Down?

Pain in the back of your head that worsens when you lay down can be caused by cluster headaches, or headaches that occur in frequent clusters. 

Here are some of the other symptoms of cluster headaches:

  • Excessive tearing

  • Droopy eyelids

  • Restlessness

  • Nausea

  • Stuffy nose

  • Sensitivity to light and sound

A doctor should treat cluster headaches because they might need stronger medication rather than simpler over-the-counter solutions. Typical treatment for cluster headaches includes triptans, local anesthetics, and octreotide. Prevention often involves melatonin, nerve blockers, and corticosteroids. Always speak to your doctor before beginning or ceasing the use of any medications.

Some other, more serious headaches to look out for include occipital neuralgia or occipital nerves headaches, medication overuse headaches, sinus headaches, migraine headaches, and headaches originating in the spinal cord. These headaches can have neurological symptoms and severe pain behind the eyes and may need physical therapy.

Do I Need To See A Doctor?

For most tension headaches and headaches in general, it’s not necessary to see a doctor. However, in the following situations, you should speak to a medical professional.

  • You have chronic headaches (headaches occur more than 15 per month for at least three months)

  • Your headaches are frequent or severe

  • Your headaches are negatively impacting your everyday life

  • Over-the-counter solutions don’t help your headaches

Doctors will often prescribe indomethacin, ketoprofen, ketorolac, or naproxen for tension headaches that aren't relieved by over-the-counter medications like a migraine headache. Of course, always speak with your doctor before starting any new medications and be sure to discuss any potential side effects.

You should call 911 or visit the emergency room if:

  • You have a headache accompanied by weakness or numbness

  • Your headache makes it difficult to see, speak, or think clearly

  • Your headache causes your face to droop

  • You experience a very sudden and severe headache

  • You have a headache after experiencing a blow to the head or other injury

Struggling to Relieve Tension?

It can be a good idea to speak to a therapist if you’re plagued by tension headaches resulting from emotional stress. BetterHelp is one great option for adults aged 18+ and TeenCounseling is a great option for teens aged 13-19. They are both online counseling platforms that match you with a certified therapist. You can communicate with them through messages, phone calls, or video sessions. A therapist, whether in person or online, can help you work through your stress and find effective ways to cope with and manage it.

Studies have proven that online cognitive behavioral therapy is effective in treating anxiety. It also may be more cost-effective than traditional, in-person therapy. Especially for people who deal with mobility issues, who live in a remote area, or who are home-bound, online therapy is a fabulous, accessible option. 

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