The aim of the present study was to investigate the impact of static contraction of the shoulder and neck muscles on muscle tenderness and headache in patients with tension-type headache. Twenty patients with frequent episodic tension-type headache and 20 healthy age- and sex-matched controls were examined using a placebo-controlled cross-over design. The subjects performed static contraction of the trapezius muscles (active procedure) or the anterior tibial muscles (placebo procedure) with 10% of maximal force for 30 min. Total tenderness score, local tenderness score and headache intensity were evaluated before and after the static work. Changes in headache intensity were followed for 24 h. Pericranial tenderness increased significantly more in patients than in controls after the active procedure (P = 0.04). The increase in pericranial tenderness tended to be higher after the active procedure than after the placebo procedure in patients (P = 0.08) and in controls (P = 0.07). Sixty per cent of the patients and 20% of the healthy controls developed headache after the active procedure. Fifty per cent of the patients and none of the controls developed headache after the placebo procedure. There was no significant difference in headache development between the active and the placebo procedure in patients or controls. These findings demonstrate that tension-type headache patients are more liable to develop shoulder and neck pain in response to static exercise than healthy controls.