Help for Tension Headaches

Almost everyone has a tension headache from time to time. These headaches do not have an underlying cause. The main symptom of a tension headache is a sense of tightness around the head. Neck and shoulder muscles often become tense and sore to the touch. This contributes to the intensity of a tension headache. The headache may last only a few hours, or it may linger for a day or more.

Pain relief

For tension headaches that occur less than 3 times a week, over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers like aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen are usually effective. Medicines that combine pain medicine with caffeine may help some people, but they can be habit-forming. Don’t use any OTC pain reliever more than 2 days or 3 days a week. Using OTC pain relievers more often than that can cause rebound headaches. These are headaches that return when you stop taking the medicine. They can sometimes be even worse than the original headaches.

Relieve stress

Try relaxation practices like deep breathing, yoga, or meditation. Many people find progressive muscle relaxation helpful. Tense a single muscle group at a time, then completely release the tension until every muscle group in the body is relaxed.

Lifestyle changes

A healthier lifestyle that promotes general good health also may help prevent headaches. Follow a regular eating and sleeping schedule. Regular aerobic exercise, like walking, swimming, or biking, can help reduce how often you get tension headaches. If you already have a headache, exercise may help lessen the pain. Just be sure to drink fluid while exercising since dehydration can make headaches worse. 

A rubdown

Give yourself a massage to relieve tension. Gently rub the muscles of your head, neck, and shoulders with your fingertips.

Hot or cold

Apply heat or ice to sore neck and shoulder muscles. Use a heating pad set on low, a hot-water bottle, a warm compress, or a hot towel. If you use ice, wrap it in thin cloth to protect your skin.

If you often have tension headaches more than twice a week, see your healthcare provider. You may benefit from taking a medicine before you experience the next headache.

This is Your Hospital

Tell Us Why St. Jude is Your Hospital.

Tell My Story
This is Your Hospital