Pathophysiological mechanisms of tension-type headache: a review of epidemiological and experimental studies

Cephalalgia. 1999 Jul;19(6):602-21. doi: 10.1046/j.1468-2982.1999.019006602.x.


In this present thesis I have discussed the epidemiology and possible pathophysiological mechanisms of tension-type headache. A population-based study of 1000 subjects randomly selected from a general population, two clinical studies, and a method study of EMG recordings, were conducted. Tension-type headache was the most prevalent form of headache, with a life-time prevalence of 78% in a general adult population. Thirty percent were affected more than 14 days per year and 3% were chronically affected, i.e. had headache at least every other day. Females were more frequently affected than males, and young subjects more frequently affected than older subjects. Females were more sensitive to mechanical pressure pain and revealed more tenderness from pericranial muscles and tendon insertions than males, and young subjects were more pain-sensitive than older subjects. Significantly higher tenderness in pericranial muscles was found in subjects with tension-type headache compared to migraineurs and to subjects without any experience of headache. Tenderness increased significantly with increasing frequency of tension-type headache in both males and females, whereas no such relation was found for mechanical pain thresholds. The applied EMG methodology was fairly reliable and nonpainful, but due to intersubject variability paired studies should be preferred. Subjects with chronic tension-type headache had slightly increased EMG levels during resting conditions and decreased levels during maximal voluntary contraction compared with headache-free subjects, indicating insufficient relaxation at rest and impaired recruitment at maximal activity. In a subsequent clinical, controlled study, the effect of 30 min of sustained tooth clenching was studied. Within 24 h, 69% of patients and 17% of controls developed a tension-type headache. Shortly after clenching, tenderness was increased in the group who subsequently developed headache, whereas tenderness was stable in the group of patients who remained headache-free, indicating that tenderness might be a causative factor of the headache. Likewise, psychophysical and EMG parameters were studied in 28 patients with tension-type headache, both during and outside of a spontaneous episode of tension-type headache. It was concluded that a peripheral mechanism of tension-type headache is most likely in the episodic subform, whereas a secondary, segmental central sensitization and/or an impaired supraspinal modulation of incoming stimuli seems to be involved in subjects with chronic tension-type headache. Prolonged nociceptive stimuli from myofascial tissue may be of importance for the conversion of episodic into chronic tension-type headache. The author emphasizes that tension-type headache is a multifactorial disorder with several concurrent pathophysiological mechanisms, and that extracranial myofascial nociception may constitute only one of them. The present thesis supplements the understanding of the balance between peripheral and central components in tension-type headache, and thereby, hopefully, leads us to a better prevention and treatment of the most prevalent type of headache.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Animals
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Denmark / epidemiology
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Electromyography
  • Facial Muscles / physiopathology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Migraine Disorders / diagnosis
  • Migraine Disorders / epidemiology
  • Migraine Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Myofascial Pain Syndromes / diagnosis
  • Myofascial Pain Syndromes / epidemiology
  • Myofascial Pain Syndromes / physiopathology
  • Neck Muscles / physiopathology
  • Pain Threshold / physiology
  • Tension-Type Headache / diagnosis
  • Tension-Type Headache / epidemiology
  • Tension-Type Headache / physiopathology*