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How to Get Rid of a Tension Headache

writtenByWritten by: Tessa Chatham Registered Nurse
Tessa Chatham Registered Nurse

Tessa Chatham Registered Nurse

Tessa is a MSN prepared Registered Nurse with 10 years of critical care experience in healthcare. When not practicing clinical nursing, she enjoys academic writing and is passionate about helping those affected by medical aliments live healthy lives.

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reviewBy Reviewed by: Dr. Katalin Karolyi
Reviewer

Dr. Katalin Karolyi

Katalin Karolyi, M.D. earned her medical degree at the University of Debrecen. After completing her residency program in pathology at the Kenezy Hospital, she obtained a postdoctoral position at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute, Orlando, Florida.

March 12, 2021 Read Time - 6 minutes

What Is a Tension Headache?

A tension headache is a type of headache characterized by a pain or discomfort in the head or scalp, and is associated with muscle tension and tightness in these areas. 

According to the International Classification of Headache Disorders, a tension headache is an episodic or chronic primary headache associated with pericranial tenderness. Tension headaches are quite common, with a lifetime prevalence in the general population ranging between 30–78% in different studies. 

Read more to find out how tension headaches are diagnosed, what their symptoms and triggers are, and steps you can take to help get rid of tension headaches.

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Tension Headache Diagnosis

Tension headaches are diagnosed by an exclusion of causes for other types of headaches based on the symptoms you report. There are no laboratory or diagnostic tests that confirm tension headaches. Instead, a tension headache diagnosis involves:

  • A neurological exam to ensure your brain function is normal
  • Questions about the frequency, duration, and characteristics of your headache
  • A review of your medical history to determine whether you have a history of stress, trouble sleeping, or head injury

Based on the symptoms you describe, the doctor will be able to diagnose a tension headache.

Tension Headache Symptoms

The symptoms you describe will help the doctor determine your diagnosis. Tension headaches are common and have similar symptoms. Tension headache symptoms include:

  • Pain or discomfort in your head, scalp, or neck (both sides)
  • Generally diffused pain
  • Mild-to-moderate pain in your head (not severe)
  • Tightening or pressing sensation around your head
  • Steady aching sensation around your head

It is important to note that tension headaches will not cause nausea, vomiting, visual changes, or severe pain. 

So, how can you identify a tension headache, and what does a tension headache feel like? The pain associated with tension headaches is often likened to the sensation of your head being squeezed by a tight band or vice. You may experience a pressure or squeezing sensation across your forehead or on the sides and back of your head. Your scalp, neck, and shoulder muscles may also feel tender to touch.

What Triggers Tension Headaches?

Tension headaches occur when the neck and scalp muscles become tense and contract. Although the mechanism that causes tension headaches are unknown, several factors are thought to be involved. Genetics may play a role in why some people get tension headaches, while environmental factors may play a role as well. 

The tightening of muscles around your neck and scalp are responsible for the tight band sensation around your head. Activities such as poor sleep position or prolonged computer usage can trigger tension headaches. 

Common triggers of tension headaches include:

  • Physical or emotional stress
  • A hectic daytime schedule
  • Jaw clenching
  • Teeth grinding (especially at nighttime)
  • Eye strain
  • Overexertion
  • Excessive smoking or alcohol use
  • Poor posture

How Long Do Tension Headaches Last?

Tension headaches can last 30 minutes to several days. There are two types of tension headaches, episodic and chronic, each with varying durations.

Type of Tension HeadacheDuration
Episodic30 minutes on and off for 15 days a month for at least 3 months
Chronic30 minutes to several days for more than 15 days a month for at least 3 months

In some cases, frequent tension headaches can become chronic tension headaches.

Chronic tension headaches last hours and may be continuous. Fortunately, there are medications and other complementary therapies available to help prevent tension headaches.

Tension Headache Prevention

Trigger reduction, relaxation therapy, and medication can prevent tension headaches. 

Identifying and avoiding triggers is the most beneficial way to prevent tension headaches. For example, if loud noises are a trigger, try to avoid loud environments. Alternatively, if you have to be in a loud environment, bring earplugs to help reduce the noise. If you feel a tension headache coming on, make sure to take some time to relax and destress.

Relaxation therapy promotes relaxation and calmness. Some relaxation therapies include:

  • Deep breathing
  • Meditation
  • Massage
  • Tai Chi
  • Yoga
  • Biofeedback
  • Music and light therapy
  • Aromatherapy
  • Acupuncture
  • Dimming the lights

Medications can prevent tension headaches as well. Both over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medications are used to prevent and treat tension headaches. If you need to take  pain relievers more than 3 times per week, it may trigger rebound headaches. In this case, ask your doctor what other treatment options you have. 

Common OTC medications used to treat tension headaches include:

  • Acetaminophen
  • Aspirin
  • Ibuprofen
  • Naproxen

Caffeine is sometimes helpful to reduce the pain associated with tension headaches. Common sources of caffeine include:

  • Coffee
  • Tea
  • Soda
  • Energy drinks
  • Espresso
  • Chocolate

Prescription medications such as antidepressants and antiseizure drugs may also be used off-label to treat tension headaches. You should talk to your doctor to determine what OTC or prescription medication is right for you.


Read: Get Headache Treatment Online


How Do You Get Rid of Tension Headaches?

If identifying and avoiding triggers do not work, the best way to get rid of tension headaches is to practice relaxation. Tension headache management consists of reducing stress and tension. Some ways to reduce stress and relax are:

  • Exercising regularly
  • Going to bed at the same time each night
  • Waking up at the same time each day
  • Avoiding food triggers that can make your headache worse
  • Resting in a quiet, dark place
  • Performing relaxation techniques such as yoga or meditation
  • Taking medication as prescribed by your doctor

Sometimes, getting a massage can help ease tension headaches by releasing some of the pressure caused by tight muscles of the shoulders, neck, and head. Doing so may decrease pain and help bring relief sooner.

What Is a Natural Way to Relieve Tension Headaches?

Home and natural remedies are available to help relieve tension headaches. Natural remedies for relieving tension headaches help reduce stress, promote relaxation, and soothe tense muscles. 

Some helpful home remedies for tension headaches  include:

  • Applying a heating pad to your head several times in 5–10-minute intervals helps reduce tension headache pain. 
  • Taking a hot shower helps relax tense muscles, which contribute to tension headaches. 
  • Taking time away from the computer screen at work can reduce eye strain. 
  • Wearing blue-light-resistant glasses while using the computer is known to help relieve eye strain that might cause tension headaches. 

Other natural remedies to decrease stress and relieve tension headaches include:

  • Drinking plenty of water
  • Taking magnesium supplements
  • Using essential oils, specifically peppermint or lavender oil
  • Trying acupuncture therapy
  • Sipping ginger tea

Many people are negatively impacted by tension headaches. It is important to identify ways to relieve pain without a prescription and minimize triggers that cause tension headaches.

  • Book on our free mobile app or website.

    Our doctors operate in all 50 states and same day appointments are available every 15 minutes.

  • See a doctor, get treatment and a prescription at your local pharmacy.

  • Use your health insurance just like you normally would to see your doctor.

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Get Tension Headache Treatment Online

Tension headache treatment includes medication, relaxation techniques, and trigger reduction. If you were recently diagnosed with tension headaches or have battled tension headaches for years, talk to a PlushCare doctor online to determine the best treatment plan for you. We make it easy for you to talk to a licensed doctor on your phone or computer. If tension headaches are disrupting your life, book an appointment to speak with a PlushCare physician today.


Read More About Tension Headaches


Sources:

PlushCare is dedicated to providing you with accurate and trustworthy health information.

American Migraine Foundation. Tension-type Headache. Accessed on March 11, 2021 at
https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/tension-type-headache/

International Headache Society. The International Classification of Headache Disorders 3rd edition. Tension-type Headache. Accessed on March 11, 2021 at
https://ichd-3.org/2-tension-type-headache/

Johns Hopkins Medicine. Tension Headaches. Accessed on February 6, 2021 at https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/headache/tension-headaches 

Medline Plus. Tension headache. Accessed on February 6, 2021. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000797.htm

Most PlushCare articles are reviewed by M.D.s, Ph.Ds, N.P.s, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals. Click here to learn more and meet some of the professionals behind our blog. The PlushCare blog, or any linked materials are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice, nor is the information a substitute for professional medical expertise or treatment. For more information click here.

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