Muscles and their role in episodic tension-type headache: implications for treatment

Eur J Pain. 2016 Feb;20(2):166-75. doi: 10.1002/ejp.748. Epub 2015 Jul 6.


Background and objective: Tension-type headache (TTH) imposes a heavy burden on the global population but remains incompletely understood and poorly managed.

Databases and data treatment: Here, we review current knowledge of peripheral factors involved in the mechanism of TTH and make recommendations for the treatment of episodic TTH based on these.

Results: Peripheral activation or sensitization of myofascial nociceptors is most probably involved in the development of muscle pain and the acute episode of TTH. Repetitive episodes of muscle pain may sensitize the central nervous system resulting in progression of TTH to the chronic form. Thus, muscular factors may be responsible not only for the acute headache episode but also for chronification of the disorder. Simple analgesics and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are the mainstays of management of individual headache episodes. Ibuprofen 400 mg and aspirin 1000 mg are recommended as drugs of first choice based on treatment effect, safety profile and costs. Non-pharmacological therapies include electromyographic biofeedback, physiotherapy and muscle relaxation therapy. Future studies should aim to identify the triggers of peripheral nociception and how to avoid peripheral and central sensitization. There is a need for more effective, faster acting drugs for acute TTH.

Conclusion: Muscular factors play an important role in episodic TTH. Ibuprofen 400 mg and aspirin 1000 mg are recommended as drugs of first choice.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics / therapeutic use*
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal / therapeutic use*
  • Disease Progression
  • Humans
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiopathology*
  • Relaxation Therapy*
  • Tension-Type Headache / drug therapy*
  • Tension-Type Headache / physiopathology


  • Analgesics
  • Anti-Inflammatory Agents, Non-Steroidal