Exercises for Tension Headache Relief

By Chesney Fowler, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
January 10, 2020

Have you ever felt a dreaded tightness that begins around your temples and spreads out to the back of your head? It almost feels as if a band were being slowly tightened around your head. You may also be familiar with an intense throbbing behind your eyes, a sensitive and tender scalp, or a dull aching pain that radiates through your neck and shoulder muscles. These are all signs of a tension headache, an extremely common type of headache suffered by 80% of American adults at some point in their lives. Once a tension headache sets in, it can last anywhere from 30 minutes to a week.

Tension headaches, or stress headaches, are uncomfortable, and they can interfere with your day, but they are rarely dangerous or indicative of a more serious illness. In most cases, they can be treated effectively at home, and there are even some things you can do to prevent them altogether. Before you panic and rush to your doctor, try some of these ways to relieve tension headaches and see if they help reduce or eliminate your headaches.

What Is a Tension Headache?

Tension headaches, also known as stress headaches, are the most common types of headaches. Pain is usually mild to moderate and gives you a feeling of tightness or pressure around your head. For details about the types of tension headaches and the causes of tension headaches read more here. For stress headache relief tips, continue below.

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Tension Headache Exercises You Can Try at Home

When you’re in the grip of that intense throbbing headache pain, likely the last thing you feel like doing is getting active—and your instinct would be right. A full-out run or a sweaty session pumping iron at the gym might not appear to be the most obvious way to relieve tension headaches, but some forms of exercise can in fact, make headaches disappear.

The best exercises for a tension headache are ones that lower your stress levels while relaxing and unwinding your tight muscles. Engaging in exercise triggers the release of endorphins (the happy hormones), which naturally help your body deal with pain. Exercise is also nature’s best natural stress-reliever; it helps you blow off steam, clears your mind, and boosts your health. For tension headache exercises to be most effective, aim to get in at least 20 minutes of an appropriate form of exercise, three times a week. Of course, you can always do more if you feel up to it.

Warming Up Before Exercise

Warming up properly before you begin your chosen form of exercise is a very important part of your workout and not one that you should skip out, even if you are short on time. If you jump straight into a workout without preparing your body, you could trigger another headache or make your current one worse. The most suitable warm up before tension headache exercise depends on the type of exercise you are going to be doing. Do a simple search online to find some ideas or discuss with a physiotherapist or certified athletic trainer.

Yoga for Tension Headache Relief

If you suffer from frequent tension headaches, I recommend adopting a regular yoga practice to give yourself an opportunity to slow-down and relax on a regular basis helping ease your tension headaches. This popular practice will improve circulation throughout your entire body which can greatly reduce pain and stress. Headaches are often triggered by a poor oxygen supply to the brain and as yoga increases both oxygen and blood flow to the brain, it can be a powerful way to combat stress headaches.

If you often sit hunched over your desk or computer, you know that this can cause a headache to come on. This is because poor posture makes your muscles tense and stiff. When you have been practicing yoga regularly for some time, you will naturally adopt a better posture and breath more deeply—both of which will help reduce your tension headaches.

Certain yoga poses can directly target some of the underlying causes of your headaches, reducing the tightness in muscles around the head, back, and neck. You can try simple poses like child’s pose or savasana as well as more advanced poses like downward facing dog or bridge pose. You can learn how to perform yoga poses that will give you the most stress headache relief by attending a class, consulting with a certified yoga teacher, or by doing some research online.

Pilates for Tension Headache Relief

Pilates is a form of exercise that works the whole body, especially the core muscles. What is less known is that Pilates can also be a very effective way to relieve tension headaches. Pilates requires you to be mindful of your body and your breath as you work through the exercises. It can reduce stress and provide much-needed stress headache relief. A regular Pilates practice can also help you to sleep better, which is another way to reduce stress.

Developing a strong core through a regular Pilates practice will improve your posture and make it less likely that you will adopt a position that can cause headache pain. Core work also increases the flow of oxygen to your cells relieving tension headaches and relaxing the body.  Pilates can make you more aware of when you are tensing your muscles, clenching your jaw or hunching your shoulders so you can take steps to reduce these common behaviors that can cause or exacerbate tension headaches.

Some Pilates exercises directly correct alignment problems that cause headaches. Neck rolls for example, help strengthen the muscles in your neck, which can reduce “forward head syndrome,” a type of misalignment that can lead to headaches. Neck rolls also reduce chronic muscle tension in the neck and improve your range of motion.

Cardio Exercise for Tension Headache Relief

If you feel a headache coming on, try taking a walk outside or walk for 30 minutes on the treadmill at gentle speed and you may find that your headache simply disappears. Studies show that regular cardio exercise can reduce the severity and frequency of your tension headaches. One of the reasons for this is that cardio exercise triggers the release of endorphins, which are your body’s natural painkillers–this alone can make your headache go away not to mention, put you in a better mood. Cardio exercise also tires you out and makes you sleep better at night, eliminating another factor that could be causing your headache.

You don’t need to push yourself too hard to enjoy the tension headache-relieving benefits of cardio exercises. A light workout on an elliptical trainer or a nice walk in nature are enough to relieve stress and gently stretch out your muscles.

Resistance Exercise for Tension Headache Relief

Resistance training, or strength training, uses weights and your own body to build muscles and endurance. Strength training can help reduce the severity of pain from tension headaches and in some instances prevent them altogether. Researchers found that neck and shoulder muscles were as much as 26% weaker in people with regular tension headaches, compared to those without. As tired neck muscles are a leading cause of tension headaches, learning exercises that strengthen these delicate muscles can help you manage your tension headaches.

A short daily workout using resistance bands can be a great way to strengthen and stretch your neck, back, and shoulder muscles. They are also convenient as they can be used at home and require little storage space. Stretching with bands helps get the blood flowing to your muscles while clearing your mind and helping you breathe more deeply—all of which can help alleviate headaches.

Alternatively, ask a trainer to show you a workout using light weights that you can do at home or at the gym 2-3 times a week. Working out with weights will stretch your body as well as give you the same endorphin-hit you get from a cardio workout. Always get the advice of a certified trainer when beginning a weight or resistance workout to ensure that your technique is correct and that you don’t injure yourself.

Neck and Shoulder Stretches for Tension Headache Relief

Many tension headaches are caused by bad posture and excessive sitting, which make the muscles and joints around the top of your neck uncomfortably tight and stiff. The following simple neck and shoulder stretches can easily be done at home or even at your desk at work and will help relieve tension headaches:

  • Palms facing body: As you go about your day, pay attention to your palms, ensuring they always face in towards your body. As we know, poor posture can increase tension headaches. This seemingly slight change in positioning opens up the chest and pulls the shoulders back, easing the tension from your neck.
  • Pectoral stretch: Stretching your pectoral muscles three times a day for 30 seconds can help reverse the damaging effects of hunching over a desk all day or holding your shoulders stiffly hiked-up, as many of us do. To correct, stand with your back against the wall with your arms bent up like a football post at a 90-degree angle and hold this position.
  • Head tilts: A simple head tilt will pull the tension away from your forehead offering relief and reducing the severity of your headache. Tilt your head to your right shoulder and hold for 30 seconds; then tilt to the left and hold for another 30 seconds. Finally, tilt down towards the center for another 30 seconds and up to the sky for 30 seconds.

If you want to learn about other tension headache exercises that you can do to relieve pain, book a session with a physiotherapist or certified trainer who can walk you through some routines. Alternatively, a simple online search will pull up several great websites where you can watch videos that will show you how to perform a basic stretch routine at home.

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When to See a Doctor

While tension headaches can be disruptive and uncomfortable, they are rarely a cause for alarm and you usually don’t need to see a doctor. There are some types of headaches which might signify a more serious condition, and for these, it is best to seek medical attention.

If you experience any of the following symptoms get yourself checked out by a doctor as soon as possible:

  • Abrupt, severe headache
  • A headache that follows a head injury
  • A headache that doesn’t respond to regular treatment
  • Fever or vomiting
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Numbness or weakness of the arms or legs
  • Increasing intensity or frequency over time
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Stiff neck
  • Seizure
  • General weakness

Tension headaches are common, and most of them can be effectively managed at home with a combination of dietary changes, exercise, and other lifestyle interventions. If you find yourself suffering from headaches several times a week and none of the interventions seem to work for you, it may be a good idea to talk over your symptoms with a doctor.

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K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Chesney Fowler, MD

Dr. Fowler is an emergency medicine physician and received her MD from George Washington University. She completed her residency in emergency medicine at Christiana Care Health System. In addition to her work at K Health, Dr. Fowler is a practicing emergency medicine physician in Washington, DC.

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