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Tension Headache Relief

Katelyn Brenner FNP

Reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP

Written by Nicholas Gibson

Published 05/03/2022

Updated 05/04/2022

Dealing with a headache can be a frustrating experience. Not only can headaches cause severe pain and discomfort, but they can also result in your day grinding to a sudden halt, stopping you from enjoying life. 

The most common type of headache is a tension headache, or a stress headache. This type of headache can develop at any time and cause everything from mild, dull pain that fades away on its own to more severe symptoms.

The good news is that getting relief from a tension headache isn’t that difficult. In fact, once you understand how tension headaches occur, it’s not just possible to treat them — it’s also possible to prevent them from occurring by making certain changes to your habits and lifestyle.

Below, we’ve explained what tension headaches are, why they occur and the steps that you can take to get relief.

We’ve also shared a few simple but effective tactics that you can use to identify your headache triggers and reduce your risk of developing tension headaches throughout the day.

A tension headache, or stress headache, is a type of headache that affects your forehead, scalp and/or neck. Tension headaches can develop in people of all ages, but they’re most common in teenagers and adults.

Common symptoms of a tension headache include:

  • A dull, pressure-like pain that affects your scalp, head and/or neck

  • Pain that affects all areas of your head, not just one side or region

  • The feeling of a tight band squeezing your head

  • More severe pain in your temples, scalp or the back of your neck

  • Difficulty relaxing or falling asleep

Unlike other types of headaches, a tension headache typically won’t make you feel nauseous or as if you need to vomit.

Tension headaches can vary in severity. Some are mild and fade away quickly, while others may involve more severe or persistent symptoms. Tension headache symptoms might last for as little as 30 minutes or persist for as long as one week.

Tension headaches happen as a result of muscle contractions in your neck and scalp. When your muscles become overly tense, you may notice that the symptoms of a headache start to develop. 

Certain activities cause muscle contractions in your neck and scalp, including sitting down for long periods of time to type. Activities that cause you to maintain an uncomfortable position, such as using a microscope or other equipment, may also contribute to muscle tension.

Other things that may cause a tension headache include:

  • Drinking alcohol

  • Smoking cigarettes

  • Feeling tired or fatigued

  • Psychological or physical stress

  • Consuming too much caffeine

  • Consuming too little caffeine (caffeine withdrawal)

  • Straining your eyes due to intense staring

  • Clenching your jaw or grinding your teeth

  • Sleeping in an uncomfortable position

  • Sleeping in an overly cold room

Some research also suggests that vitamin deficiencies might play a role in the development of stress headaches. For example, one small correlational study found that a vitamin B12 deficiency may be associated with an increased risk of tension headaches in children.

Although tension headaches usually won’t completely stop you from doing your daily activities, they can be unpleasant to deal with and make your day miserable when they persist. 

The good news is that tension-type headaches are very treatable, usually with over-the-counter pain relief drugs and simple techniques that you can do at home.

Try the techniques below to deal with a tension headache:

  • Take over-the-counter pain medications. You can usually relieve pain from a stress headache by using over-the-counter medication for pain relief, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen or aspirin.
    If you use pain medication, make sure to closely follow the dosage instructions. Taking too much medication may cause digestive issues or harm your liver.

  • Use medication preemptively. If you’re aware of your headache triggers, you can use medication preemptively to lower your risk of developing symptoms. Try taking a small dose of over-the-counter pain medication before a stressful activity.

  • Take a hot or cold bath or shower. Many people find that taking a relaxing shower or bath helps to reduce the severity of a tension headache. Try running warm water over your forehead to dull the pain, or relax in the bath to reduce stress and tension.

  • Massage your head and neck. If you have muscle tension, try to gently massage your head, neck and shoulder muscles. This may help to provide relief from mild-to-moderate pain and muscle tightness.

  • Rest in a quiet, relaxing environment. Try to close the curtains, dim the lights and sit in a quiet, peaceful room. Some people find that applying a cool towel to their forehead helps to reduce craniofacial pain from a tension headache.

  • Avoid smoking or drinking alcohol. Smoking and alcohol consumption are common headache triggers that may make your symptoms worse. Avoid consuming alcohol or smoking until you feel better. 

With the right mix of habits and medication, it’s usually possible to stop tension headaches from coming back. Try the preventive treatment techniques below to identify your headache triggers and reduce your risk of dealing with persistent headaches that affect your quality of life.

Keep a Headache Diary

Tension headaches are often caused by specific triggers, such as consuming too much caffeine, not getting enough sleep or straining your eyes. Keeping a diary of your headaches could help you to identify your headache triggers, then take steps to avoid them.

Whenever you get a tension-type headache, make a note of it in your diary. Make sure to take a note of when the headache started, how much sleep you got the night before the headache and any specific foods, drinks or medications you consumed before you noticed symptoms.

Once the headache improves, write down how long it lasted and anything else you noticed while the headache occurred. It may also help to make a note of what you were doing when you first noticed symptoms, as well as anything you were doing before the headache developed.

If you can’t carry a written diary or usually get headaches while you’re out of the house, install a journaling app on your phone to make recording your headaches easier. 

After making notes about your headaches for several weeks, review your diary and try to notice any common trends. You may find that specific things, such as foods, drinks or behaviors, seem to be closely linked to your headache symptoms.

Make a note of these potential headache triggers, then take steps to either totally avoid them or limit your exposure in the future. 

Make Healthy Changes to Your Habits and Lifestyle

Living a healthy, balanced lifestyle may help to prevent tension headaches from occurring and reduce their severity when they do occur. Try the following habits and lifestyle changes:

  • Get more physical exercise. Physical activity has lots of benefits, including potentially reducing headache symptoms. In fact, according to a small 2018 study, people who exercise experience improvements in migraines, tension-type headaches and neck pain.
    Try to exercise every day, even if it’s just a bike ride around your local neighborhood or a quick workout. The CDC recommends getting 150 minutes of aerobic activity per week, as well as at least two muscle-strengthening workouts.

  • Maintain good posture. Practicing good posture helps prevent neck, shoulder and back pain, which may cause headaches. When you sit, keep your shoulders relaxed, your feet flat on the floor, your elbows close to your body and your back supported.
    Simple things such as walking around the office every few hours and switching up your sitting positions can also help to improve your posture and reduce muscle strain.

  • Stretch your neck, back and shoulder muscles. If you often sit in the same position for long periods of time while you work, take a break to stretch any tense muscles and prevent your posture from causing muscle strain.

  • Use stress management techniques. Tension headaches often develop as a result of stressful events. If you have to take part in a stressful event that can’t be avoided, you may benefit from using stress management techniques to control your feelings.
    Simple techniques, such as deep breathing, biofeedback and meditation, can often have real benefits for dealing with daily stress. Our guide to relaxation techniques for anxiety shares six techniques that you can use whenever you feel stressed out.

  • Change pillows or sleeping positions. Sleeping with your neck in an uncomfortable or abnormal position could cause tension headaches. Try changing to a different sleeping position or switching pillows to something that provides more neck support.

  • Get lots of sleep. It’s important to get plenty of high-quality nightly sleep if you’re prone to tension headaches. Aim for the CDC’s recommendation of seven to nine hours each night, or more if you’re under the age of 18.

Seek Expert Help for Recurrent or Severe Headaches

Most of the time, changes to your lifestyle and over-the-counter pain medications are enough to keep occasional tension headaches at bay.

However, if you get severe or chronic tension headaches, it’s important to get professional help from a healthcare provider. 

Chronic tension-type headaches are usually treated with medication. Your healthcare provider may recommend using a drug called amitriptyline (a type of tricyclic antidepressant) to manage your headache symptoms and prevent your headaches from coming back.

Amitriptyline is effective, but it can take three to four weeks to start working. You might need to keep using medication for six months or longer to deal with recurrent headaches and get control over your symptoms.

If you’re prescribed preventive medication for your headaches, make sure to closely follow your healthcare provider’s instructions and inform them if you experience any side effects.

Your healthcare provider might also suggest taking part in therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), to treat your headaches. CBT and other forms of psychotherapy may help you to deal with stress and other mental health issues that can contribute to headaches.

Get Emergency Care for Severe, Extreme Headaches

Tension headaches can be uncomfortable and annoying, but they usually aren’t severe. If you’re experiencing a severe headache (for example, the worst headache you’ve ever felt), you should seek medical care as soon as possible.

It’s especially important to contact a medical professional if you develop a severe headache that starts suddenly, if you vomit during a headache, if you have a high fever, or if you suddenly have difficulties speaking, moving, balancing or seeing clearly.

Tension headaches can be a major annoyance, especially when they occur on a frequent basis and affect your daily life. However, they’re usually treatable with the right combination of healthy habits and medication.

If you’re prone to tension headaches, you can get help by talking to your primary care provider, or by using our online primary care services to talk to a licensed provider from home. 

Make sure to let your healthcare provider know if your headaches don’t improve, or if you have severe headaches that get worse over time.

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