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Sharp Health News

How to relieve a tension headache

March 21, 2022

Woman at laptop with a headache

Headaches seem to hit at the most inopportune times. And while some may have obvious causes — a stressful day, noisy environment or lack of hydration — others can seem to come out of nowhere. But whatever the reason you find yourself with minor head pain, it’s good to know that there are both quick fixes and prevention tactics.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, headaches are the most frequent form of bodily pain, often keeping people out of work, school and activities. The most common type of headache is the tension headache, which is caused by tight muscles in the shoulders, neck and jaw.

Everyday reasons for tension headaches include:

  • Stress
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Long work hours
  • Lack of sleep
  • Poor nutrition and hydration
  • Use of alcohol

How to treat a tension headache
Fortunately, there are methods for treating tension headaches at home. From over-the-counter medications to simple self-care practices, these common annoyances can be treated and even prevented. Try these tips:

Option 1: Take an over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever. Pain medications, such as aspirin, ibuprofen or acetaminophen, may relieve headache pain and are generally safe for most people to occasionally use as directed. However, individuals who are pregnant or who have heart disease, high blood pressure, gastrointestinal issues, or kidney or liver disease should first talk with their doctor about their use.

Option 2: Get a massage or use a self-massaging tool. Head, neck and shoulder massage can help relieve tight muscles and headaches. At home, you can use electronic head and neck massagers, a deep-tissue massage gun, or trigger point massage tools. You can also ask a loved one to give you a gentle massage.

Option 3: Take a shower. A hot or cool shower can help relieve a headache. If you don’t have time for a shower, try a cold compress on your head or a heat pack on your tense muscles. Use caution with hot showers and heating pads to avoid burns. For best results, try cold on your forehead and temples and heat on your neck and the back of your head.

How to prevent a tension headache
You might be able to prevent future tension headaches. This is especially true if you identify which activities or environments are mostly likely to cause them. Try using a headache diary to track when you get headaches, what might have caused them, how long they lasted and what helped relieve them.

You can also:

  • Practice good sleep hygiene to ensure you are getting quality sleep each night.
  • Improve your posture to relieve muscle soreness.
  • Take stretch breaks when working or sitting for long periods of time.
  • Eat a nutritious diet, stay hydrated and maintain a regular meal schedule.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Perform relaxation, breathing and mindfulness exercises each day.
  • Avoid excessive caffeine consumption.
  • Avoid smoking and alcohol use.
  • Maintain regular eye care to ensure your vision isn’t the cause of headaches.

When headaches require medical care
Other types of headaches, such as migraines, cluster headaches and sinus headaches, can require different types of medications prescribed by your doctor.

You should also talk with your doctor if you notice a change in your regular pattern of headaches or you find yourself needing OTC pain medications more than three times a week. Seek professional care if you are experiencing excessive mental or emotional stress.

Headaches caused by a blow to the head or head trauma; headaches that come on suddenly; and headaches accompanied by a stiff neck, fever, confusion, loss of balance or consciousness, or pain in the eye or ear may require emergency care. Call 911 if you are experiencing what could be labeled as “the worst headache of your life.”

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