How to Relieve a Tension Headache

Four Methods:Using Medication and Professional TreatmentUsing Home RemediesAdjusting Your LifestylePreventing Tension Headaches

When you have a tension headache, you may feel like there is a tight band around your head, squeezing tighter and tighter around your temples. You may also experience pain in your scalp or neck.[1] Though tension headaches are the most common type of headache, their causes aren’t well understood. Experts believe they may be triggered by responses to stress, depression, anxiety, or injury.[2] with the right treatment, you should be able to find relief.[3]

Method 1
Using Medication and Professional Treatment

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    Take over the counter headache medication. These include acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) naproxen sodium (Aleve), and aspirin. Never take more than the amount recommended on the package, and use the lowest dose that relieves your headache.[4][5]
    • Keep in mind a combination of over the counter (OTC) headache medications and caffeine can cause liver damage if used in high doses or for a long period of time, especially if you also use alcohol or have liver problems.
    • Talk to your doctor if you take over the counter headache medication for more than a week and are still having tension headaches.
    • Don't take OTC headache medications for more than a few days a week, and don't take them longer than a week or ten days without consulting your doctor. Overusing pain medications can cause rebound headaches, which occur with long-term use of headache medicines. You can become reliant on the medication and have headaches if you stop taking it.[6]
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    Ask your doctor about prescription medication. If your tension headaches do not go away with OTC drugs or lifestyle changes, your doctor may prescribe stronger medication. These include naproxen, indomethacin, and piroxicam.[7]
    • These prescription medications can cause side effects such as bleeding and upset stomach and raise your risk of heart problems. Your doctor should tell you about any side effects or complications before prescribing these to you.
    • If you experience chronic tension headaches and migraines, your doctor may prescribe a triptan to relieve the pain. But opiates and narcotics are rarely prescribed because of their side effects and the risk of addiction or dependency.[8]
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    Try acupuncture. Acupuncture involves the insertion of fine needles into specific points in your body. The needles are then manually stimulated or stimulated electrically. This increases blood flow to the area around the needles and releases any tension or stress.[9] Studies suggest that it may be helpful to relieve chronic tension headaches.[10]
    • Acupuncture causes very little pain or discomfort and should only be performed by a certified acupuncture specialist. When performed correctly, acupuncture is proven to help reduce tension headaches.[11]
    • Dry-needling is another type of treatment that involves acupuncture needles. However, it is not based on the principles of traditional Chinese medicine, as acupuncture is. It involves inserting acupuncture needles into trigger points to stimulate the muscles to relax, lessening the tension that can cause headaches. It can be performed by healthcare professionals trained in the procedure, such as physical therapists, massage therapists, and doctors.[12]
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    See a chiropractor. Studies suggest that spinal manipulation therapy performed by a licensed chiropractor may help treat tension headaches, especially if they are chronic.[13][14]
    • You can find a list of Chiropractic Licensing Boards in several countries at the Federation of Chiropractic Licensing Boards website. Always have treatments performed by a trained, licensed chiropractor.
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    Ask your doctor about massage therapy. Medical massage therapy is a little different than massages given just for relaxation. Targeted massage therapy for the neck and shoulders has been shown to be effective at treating tension headaches and reducing their occurrence.[15] Ask your doctor for a referral for medical massage.
    • Health insurance companies may not cover massage. However, they are more likely to do so if you have a doctor's referral. Speak with your health insurance provider to determine whether this option is covered.
    • You can find licensed and certified massage therapists with the directory search provided by the American Massage Therapy Association here.
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    Have your eyes examined. Eye strain is a common tension headache trigger. If you have frequent headaches (two or more per week), schedule an eye examination. Difficulty with your vision could be contributing to your headaches.[16]
    • If you wear glasses or contacts, consider contacting your eye doctor for a new exam. Your vision can change, and if your prescription is no longer what you need you could be straining your eyes.

Method 2
Using Home Remedies

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    Rest in a dark, quiet room. Stress is one of the main causes of headaches. And once you have a tension headache, you may be sensitive to light or sound. To counteract this, sit or lie down in a dimly lit room. Close your eyes and try to relax your back, neck, and shoulders.[17]
    • Turn off sources of noise like a television, computer, or cellphone.
    • You can also close your eyes and cup them with the palm of your hands. Apply light pressure for two minutes. This will help to shut down your optic nerves and relax you.
    • In a dark, quiet room you can also try a neck exercise. Place your palm on your forehead. Use your neck muscles to lightly press your forehead against your palm. Make sure you keep your head upright as you press your forehead against your palm.[18]
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    Do a deep breathing exercise. Deep breathing can help you relax and reduce any stress in your body, including your head. Take slow, even breaths and try to relax.[19]
    • Close your eyes and take several deep breaths.
    • Exhale slowly, relaxing any areas in your body that feel tight. Picture a beautiful scene, like a sandy beach, a bright sunny garden, or a country road.
    • Drop your chin toward your chest. Slowly rotate your head in a half circle from side to side.
    • Take another deep breath and exhale slowly. Continue picturing the beautiful scene in your head.
    • Repeat this exercise until you are in a state of relaxation.
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    Apply a hot or cold compress to your head. Heat and cold can help to relieve pain and muscle tension in your neck and head.[20]
    • Apply a moist hot towel or warm compress to the back of your neck or on your forehead. You can also take a long, hot shower, being sure to run water down your head and on the back of your neck.
    • Wrap an ice pack in a towel and place it on the back of your neck or on your forehead.
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    Apply peppermint oil to your temples, your forehead and the back of your jaw. Peppermint can have a nice soothing effect and ease any discomfort or pain.[21][22]
    • Once you massage in a few drops of oil, you should feel a cooling sensation on area. Breathe deeply and find a quiet place to sit or lie down.
    • If you have sensitive skin, dilute peppermint oil with a drop or two of olive oil or water before applying it.
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    Hydrate with water or herbal tea. As soon as you feel tension in your head, drink several glasses of water. Or make yourself some herbal tea to put yourself in a relaxed state of mind. Dehydration may trigger headaches.
    • Avoid consuming caffeine or alcohol as these will only dehydrate you more.[23]
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    Massage your face, head, and hands. Do a targeted mini-massage on your upper body. Use your fingertips to rub the back and sides of your head. Then, gently massage the areas under your eyes.[24]
    • Move your scalp gently back and forth using your fingertips. Don't move it more than a half-inch or so.
    • You can also run your fingertips along the inside of each of your fingers and rub your palms.
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    Try an acupressure massage to ease headache pain. This is a simple acupressure technique you can do on yourself at home.[25]
    • Place your thumbs near the base of your skull.
    • Locate the depressions on both sides of where your head meets your neck. They are just outside the thick muscle that runs down the middle of your head, or about 2 inches from the center of your head.
    • Using your thumbs, press in and upward until you feel a slight sensation on your head.
    • Keep pressing lightly with your thumbs and move your thumbs in small circles for 1-2 minutes.

Method 3
Adjusting Your Lifestyle

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    Exercise regularly. Physical activity can help to release any stress or tension in your body and produces endorphins in your brain, which fight off pain in your body.[26]
    • Do 30 minutes of walking, biking, or running at least three times a week. Be consistent with your exercise routine.
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    Stand in Mountain Pose to improve your posture. Having good posture can help keep your muscles from tensing up. It can also release tension in your head. Doing yoga poses like Mountain Pose will improve your posture and relax you.[27][28]
    • Stand with your feet hip width apart.
    • Roll your shoulders back and place your hands at your sides.
    • Pull in your abdomen and tuck your tailbone toward the floor.
    • Tuck your chin towards your chest. Try to hold this pose for at least 5-10 breaths.
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    Sit in Stick Pose. This is another good yoga pose to improve your posture and practice deep breathing.[29][30]
    • Sit with your legs straight out in front of you.
    • Flex your toes so they move towards you.
    • Roll your shoulders back and place your hands at your sides on the floor.
    • Pull in your abdomen and tuck your tailbone towards the floor. Tuck your chin towards your chest. Try to hold this pose for at least 5-10 breaths.
    • You can also cross your legs if straight legs is uncomfortable for you.
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    Avoid food that contains MSG and caffeine. MSG or monosodium glutamate is a flavor enhancer commonly found in Chinese food. Some people react to MSG by developing a headache. But there is no scientific link between MSG and headaches.[31] Other foods that may cause headaches include:[32]
    • Chocolate
    • Cheese
    • Foods containing the amino acid tyramine, found in red wine, aged cheese, smoked fish, chicken livers, figs, and some beans
    • Nuts
    • Peanut butter
    • Some fruits, like avocado, banana, and citrus
    • Onions
    • Dairy products
    • Meats containing nitrates, such as bacon, hot dogs, salami, cured meats
    • Fermented or pickled foods
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    Get at least 8 hours of sleep a night. A consistent sleep schedule will ensure your brain and body are free of anxiety and stress, two big causes of tension headaches.[33]

Method 4
Preventing Tension Headaches

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    Keep a headache diary. This can help you to identify the source of your headaches and how you can adjust your environment and habits to avoid them.[34]
    • When you start to feel a headache coming on, write down the date and time it began. Note what you ate or drank the hours before the headache. Write down how long you slept the night before and what you were doing before the headache. Make a note of how long the headache lasted and what methods worked to make it stop.
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    Practice relaxation and stress management techniques daily. This could be a morning yoga class, a 15 to 20 minute meditation or a deep breathing practice before you go to bed.[35][36]
    • Exercise at least three times a week to keep your anxiety and stress at bay.
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    Maintain a healthy lifestyle. Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and smoking. Get 8 hours of sleep a night and take care of yourself by avoiding stress at home and at work.[37]
    • Eat balanced meals that do not contain MSG or other headache inducing foods.
    • Drink lots of water every day and stay hydrated.
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    Talk to your doctor about preventative medications if you have chronic tension headaches. Your doctor will examine you to make sure your headaches are not actually migraines or something more serious. If your headaches continue despite other pain medication and therapies, your doctor may prescribe preventative medication. These include:[38]
    • Tricyclic antidepressants. These are the most commonly used medications to prevent tension headaches. Side effects of these medications include weight gain, drowsiness, and dry mouth.
    • Anticonvulsants and muscle relaxants, such as topiramate. However, more study is needed to determine the effectiveness of anticonvulsants and relaxants for tension headaches.
    • Keep in mind preventive medication can take several weeks or more to build up in your system before they take effect. So be patient and continue taking the prescribed dosage, even if you do not see improvements as soon as you begin taking the medication.
    • You doctor will monitor your treatment to see how effective the preventive medication is for you.


  • If you work on the computer on a day to day basis, try to take a 10-minute screen break every hour. Get up and walk around the office, get a cup of tea, or have a quick chat with a co-worker. You could also find a dark, quiet area and lie down for 10 minutes to rest your eyes and prevent tension headaches.


  • If you suffer from frequent or severe headaches you should see a doctor as soon as possible. This is especially true if your headaches wake you up at night or occur first thing in the morning.
  • If your headache is sudden, severe, and associated with vomiting, confusion, numbness, weakness, or changes in vision, get emergency medical attention.

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Categories: Headaches and Migraines