Feel like you have a band squeezing your head, giving you a dull aching pain, and a sense of tightness in your forehead, sides, or back of your head? Or perhaps you feel like your scalp is very sensitive and tender, or that your neck and shoulder muscles ache. If so, you may be suffering from a tension headache, the most common type of headache experienced at some point in their lives by 80% of American adults. Although they can be quite uncomfortable, it might relieve some tension to know that these headaches usually aren’t dangerous or caused by any disease or illness. Even better news is that there are very effective ways to treat and prevent them at home.
Tension Headache Symptoms, Types, and Causes
Usually, tension headache pain feels like diffuse or vague pain in various parts of the head, rather than sharp or acute pain, as if you had an injury. The pain is most often moderate as opposed to piercing, and comes on gradually rather than all at once. Other symptoms can include:
- Mild sensitivity to light and sound
- Aching head, neck, and shoulder muscles
In contrast to migraine headaches, for which tension headaches can be mistaken, tension headaches won’t cause your vision to blur, nor should they cause severe, debilitating pain, nausea, or vomiting.
Tension headaches are divided into three main categories — infrequent episodic, which are headaches that occur less than twelve times per year, frequent episodic, in which headaches occur between one and 14 times per month, and chronic, which occur at least 15 times per month and last for hours.
No one knows exactly what causes tension headaches, and what brings them on can differ from person to person. However, common triggers include:
- Poor posture
- Eye strain
- Muscular tension in head and neck
- Infections like the common cold, flu, or sinus infections
- Hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle
Tension headaches can be treated quite effectively with medicine, lifestyle changes, and at-home remedies. Infrequent episodic tension headaches respond well to over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin). Be advised though, if you use these medications more than two or three times a week, you can experience medication-overuse headaches, as well as rebound headaches, which can occur when you stop taking the medication. So try to limit the use of OTC medications to less than two or three times per week.
Frequent episodic and chronic tension headaches might need a stronger medicine. If you experience this type of headache, your doctor might prescribe you a medication like naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn), indomethacin (Indocin), ketorolac (Ketorolac Tromethamine), or prescription-strength acetaminophen (Tylenol).
Home Remedies for Tension Headaches
If medicine doesn’t work for you, or you’d like to try other interventions first, there are a number of at-home and alternative remedies to try.
- Some people have great success applying a heating pad or ice pack to their head, neck, and shoulders when the pain strikes.
- You can also take a hot bath or shower to relax tense muscles.
- Massage, acupuncture, and stretching can bring relief from tension headache pain
- Try taking frequent breaks from looking at screens.
- Finally, relaxation techniques such as deep-breathing and meditation can help to lessen the pain of tension headaches, and when practiced regularly, may prevent them altogether.
- Focus on the basics: plenty of water and adequate sleep
Treating Tension Headaches Related to Mood
If your headaches are related to anxiety or depressed mood, your doctor may suggest taking an antidepressant, most commonly a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). This medicine works by stabilizing levels of the neurotransmitter, serotonin, in the brain. Stress management classes, biofeedback, and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can also help relieve and manage stress, which can ease and prevent headaches caused by your mood.
Preventing Tension Headaches
Even better than treating tension headaches is preventing them in the first place. There are many lifestyle modifications you can try to prevent tension headaches from occurring.
- Learn to manage stress effectively through therapy, stress-reduction classes, yoga, or meditation
- Improve your posture. Keep your shoulders back when standing and make sure your head isn’t slumped forward when you sit, especially at a computer desk or when on your phone.
- Eat regular, well-balanced meals. Skipping meals and low blood sugar are known triggers of tension headaches!
- Drink plenty of water.
- Get a good night’s sleep.
- Try a scalp or full body massage.
- Limit consumption of caffeine, sugar, and alcohol.
- Keep a headache diary to discover if you have certain triggers. Some factors particularly helpful to note are: meals, beverages, exercise, time of day or night, or stressful events and situations.
- Aromatherapy. Some studies suggest that smelling lavender and peppermint can help decrease headache pain.
- Exercise: Both aerobic activities and posture-improving exercises have proven to help decrease headache frequency.
When to Seek Help for Tension Headaches
Tension headaches, while painful, are usually harmless and not indicative of any underlying medical condition. However, it’s important to be able to distinguish the common tension headache from head pain that requires medical attention.
If you experience any of the following, seek medical care.
- Abrupt, severe headache
- A headache that follows a head injury
- A headache that doesn’t respond to regular treatment
You should also see a doctor right away if your headache is accompanied by any of the following symptoms:
- 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
- General weakness
While tension headaches are common, they shouldn’t get in the way of your daily life. If you find yourself reaching for pain relievers more than twice a week or unable to accomplish your daily tasks due to headaches, get evaluated by a medical professional. As a first step you can check your headache symptoms in the free K Health app and chat with a doctor for advice on next steps. Your doctor will ask you about your headache symptoms, looking for signs of a more serious condition. In order to rule out serious conditions, your doctor might order an MRI (Magnetic resonance imaging) or a CT scan (Computerized tomography) to help determine what might be causing your pain.
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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.