Tension headaches, also known as stress headaches, are one of the most common types of headaches and countless people experience them.
While the exact cause is unknown, some experts believe these headaches are caused by muscle contractions in the head and neck regions.
Certain factors contribute to this type of headache. Some common triggers are stress, impaired sleep, skipping meals, vision problems, eyestrain, overexertion and muscle strain. Also, females suffer from tension headaches more often than men.
Tension headaches fall under two categories — episodic and chronic. Episodic tension headaches can last from 30 minutes to one week, whereas chronic tension headaches last hours and may be continuous.
A tension headache causes mild to moderate pain, giving the feeling of a tight band around your head. The pain may begin in the back of the head or above the eyebrows and finally impacts the whole head.
Other symptoms include pressure across your forehead or on the sides and back of your head, and tenderness in your scalp, neck and shoulder muscles.
In addition to causing discomfort, headaches can also make you anxious or depressed and affect your relationships, your productivity and the quality of your life.
To prevent tension headaches, it is important to identify the triggers and avoid them.
Here are the top 10 ways to treat and prevent tension headaches.
1. Stress Management
The first important step to treat or prevent tension headaches is controlling your stress level. In fact, stress is not only a trigger but can also worsen the pain.
There are many ways that you can manage your stress level.
- Take a hot bath or shower to relax tense muscles.
- Listen to soft and soothing music in a quiet room.
- Spend time doing anything you like to do, such as gardening or painting.
- Read something inspiring.
- Go out for a walk and enjoy nature.
- Practice stress-busting techniques like deep breathing, yoga, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, and visualization and guided imagery.
- Exercise regularly to lower stress. Plus, it has positive effects on blood pressure levels.
A good scalp massage for a few minutes can also provide significant relief from stress-related headaches. It will help reduce stress, ease muscle soreness and tension, and improve blood circulation.
When massaging, focus on the temporal regions or the occipital area (the back of the head) for the best results.
- Mix 1 or 2 drops of thyme or rosemary essential oil in 2 tablespoons of warm olive or coconut oil.
- Dab the oil on each temple and on your forehead.
- Massage it gently into the skin.
- Then, sit quietly for several minutes to let this home remedy work.
You can also consider a whole-body massage for relief.
3. Ice Pack
Applying an ice pack to your head can soothe sore muscles and ease a tension headache.
At times, headaches occur due to expanded blood vessels pressing on nerves. In such a situation, applying something cold to the area can constrict those vessels and relieve some of the pressure. This in turn provides relief from the throbbing ache.
- Put a few ice cubes in a plastic bag and wrap the bag in a thin towel.
- Lie down in a quiet place and place the cold compress on your forehead.
- Wait 2 minutes, then take a break for 2 minutes.
- Repeat the cycle 4 or 5 times.
- Try to relax and soon the pain will be gone.
Note: Do not put ice directly on your skin, as it can cause frostbite.
4. Apple Cider Vinegar
Apple cider vinegar works especially well for migraines, but it is also effective for tension headaches. It helps balance the pH levels in the body and aids in detoxification.
Plus, it offers anti-inflammatory benefits that provide relief from a throbbing headache. It is also effective at reducing your stress level.
- Add 1 tablespoon of raw, unfiltered apple cider vinegar to a glass of water.
- Optionally, add a little honey.
- Drink this once or twice daily to prevent as well as treat headaches.
You can also drink chamomile tea and green tea to help ease headaches.
5. Rosemary Oil Footbath
According to herbalists, footbath with rosemary oil is a powerful home remedy for headaches. The hot water draws blood to your feet, thus easing the pressure in the blood vessels of your head. This in turn eases the throbbing pain.
On the other hand, rosemary oil has anti-inflammatory properties that aid in reducing pain. A 2013 study published in Food Chemistry highlights the anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties of rosemary.
- Add 7 or 8 drops of rosemary essential oil to a small tub filled with warm water.
- Soak your feet in the footbath for 20 to 30 minutes and try to relax.
- When done, pat dry your feet with a soft towel.
6. Peppermint Essential Oil
Peppermint essential oil can calm your nerves and reduce your stress level, making it one of the best remedies for tension headaches.
Topical application helps relax your muscles and nerves as well as promoting blood circulation.
A 2007 study published in American Family Physician found that topical application of peppermint oil may be effective in the treatment of tension headaches.
- Find a quiet place to relax. Massage a few drops of peppermint oil onto your temples, forehead, and back of your neck. Breathe deeply while doing so.
- Alternatively, you can place 2 wet peppermint tea bags on your closed eyelids or forehead for 5 to 10 minutes.
7. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
A type of talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helps you understand the situations that cause you stress, anxiety and tension. Also, this therapy guides you on how to manage stress.
Once stress is controlled, the frequency and severity of tension headaches will automatically be reduced.
In CBT, a mental health professional talks with the patient on a one-to-one basis. Several sessions of 2 to 3 hours may be needed to treat tension headaches.
A 2014 study published in BMC Neurology found CBT to be an efficacious treatment for both migraine and tension-type headaches. The study puts emphasis on conducting further studies to increase the efficacy of behavioral approaches and identify factors predictive of a positive response.
8. Improve Your Posture
One common cause of tension headaches is muscle tension and tightness. This tightness occurs all over the head and neck, and poor posture is one of the main reasons behind it.
Improving your posture can make all the difference in the world when it comes to tension headaches. Good posture can help keep your muscles from tensing up.
Work hard to improve your posture, both when sitting and standing.
- When standing, hold your shoulders back and your head level, while pulling in your abdomen and buttocks.
- When sitting, keep your thighs parallel to the ground and your head facing straight ahead.
Also, while walking and lying down, make a conscious effort to correct your posture.
9. Prevent Eyestrain
Eyestrain is another leading cause of tension headaches as well as pain in the neck, shoulders or back. Those who sit at a desk for long hours in front of a computer have a higher risk of eyestrain as well as headaches.
To prevent eyestrain:
- Gently massage your eyelids daily for about 1 minute, several times a day. This will relax the muscles around your eyes.
- For every 15 or 30 minutes of work, take a 5-minute break. Simply stand up and walk around to allow the eye muscles to reset.
- Do some eye exercises by rolling your eyes in clockwise and counterclockwise directions for a few seconds. Repeat 4 or 5 times. Do this quick exercise every few hours.
An alternative therapy, acupressure is also effective at treating tension headaches. Acupressure is like acupuncture but without the needles. You simply exert pressures on certain points, which when stimulated can reduce headache pain.
One of the acupressure points to reduce a headache due to stress is the drilling bamboo point.
To find the drilling bamboo points, look for the points where the bridge of your nose meets your eye sockets, just below the eyebrows.
To stimulate these points, apply pressure to both points at the same time using the tips of both of your index fingers. Apply the pressure for at least 1 minute.
- Modify your diet to eliminate tension-headache triggers, such as chocolate, preservatives, aged cheeses, nitrates and other personal triggers that you may have identified.
- Establish a regular eating pattern and mealtimes.
- Develop consistent sleep habits, but avoid sleeping too much.
- Don’t smoke and limit your alcohol, caffeine and sugar intake.
- Drink plenty of water throughout the day to stay hydrated.
Expert Answers (Q&A)
Answered by Dr. Martin M. Mortazavi, MD (Neurosurgeon)
How long does a tension headache last normally?
It is variable and depends on the reason causing it, such as stress or too much work that leads to stress.
Is it normal to have tension headaches every day?
Yes, it is very normal.
What is the fastest way to get relief from a tension headache?
The fastest way to get relief from a tension headache is to avoid the cause of stress. Temporarily, massage and pain killers, as well as muscle relaxant medication, can help.
What pressure points help in relieving tension headache?
Tension headaches are usually caused by tension in the muscles attached to the skull, particularly those present at the back of the skull. Care needs to be taken if the patient has a massage. Also, avoid pushing too much on the neck as excessive pressure can cause injury in the deep-seated arteries in the neck that bring blood to the brain. Any injury in these arteries can cause a stroke.
Please provide some tips for dealing with tension headaches for the benefit of our readers.
- If you identify a certain cause such as work overload or familial stress, please make every effort to reduce them
- Engage in running or swimming every day for almost an hour
- Get soft massage around your neck and shoulder
- Read a book to learn how to deal with stress
- In worse cases, get a mild pain killer and muscle relaxants while you are practicing the above advices
About Dr. Martin M. Mortazavi, MD: Dr. Mortazavi is the Founding Chairman of the National Skull Base Center. He is also the Founding Chairman of the California Institute of Neuroscience and the Director of its Cerebrovascular, Skull Base and Tumor program.
Dr. Mortazavi pursued a postdoctoral research fellowship in neurotrauma and regeneration at Barrow Neurological Institute. In addition to treating the full panorama of Brain and Spine diseases, Dr. Mortazavi treats complex tumors and vascular lesions of the brain and the spinal cord.