Locations:
Search IconSearch

Tame Your Tension Headaches Naturally

6 lifestyle changes plus 1 home remedy to reduce headaches

woman at work suffering from a tension headache

Pop quiz: What’s the most common type of headache? Surprisingly, it’s not a migraine. Tension headaches take the prize for the most common headache disorder. Neurologist Emad Estemalik, MD, talks tension in this Q&A:

Advertisement

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

Q. What is a tension headache?

A. People describe tension headaches as an aching pain that affects both sides of the head. They can last 30 minutes or linger for a few days. Typically, pain is the main symptom. Common migraine symptoms such as nausea, vomiting or light sensitivity aren’t usually factors for a tension headache. (Yay?)

“The biggest trigger for tension headaches, and probably the reason they are so common, is stress,” says Dr. Estemalik. “In most cases, lifestyle tweaks that reduce stress are enough to keep tension headaches at bay.”

Q: Who’s more likely to get tension headaches?

A: Men and women, young and old, are all equally at risk. The most significant cause is feeling stressed or overwhelmed — so a person who has a high-stress job or works long hours may be more susceptible. And people who are prone to depression, anxiety or sleep disorders are also more likely to experience tension headaches.

Q: Are there different types of tension headaches?

A: We categorize tension headaches as episodic or chronic. Episodic tension headaches are milder, less frequent and relatively short-lived.

If someone reaches a threshold of 15 headache days a month, or realizes their headaches are affecting their life quality, we would label those as chronic tension headaches.

Q: How can I get relief from tension headaches?

A: A tried-and-true home remedy for both chronic and episodic tension headaches is using a hot or cold compress to alleviate the discomfort. Place it on the forehead or over the neck and shoulders.

People can easily manage episodic headaches with over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers like a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) and acetaminophen. We recommend people limit the use of OTC pain relievers to two times per week at most. Using them too often could result in medication-overuse headaches, plus too much could damage the kidneys or liver.

People with chronic headaches may need daily prevention medicines. But we have a lot of options to help people avoid tension headaches altogether.

Q: Can tension headaches be prevented?

A: Yes! Because of their strong link to stress, take these steps to prevent or minimize the severity of tension headaches:

  • Drink water: Dehydration can increase headache severity, so drink eight glasses of water each day.
  • Exercise: Physical activity produces brain chemicals (endorphins) that are natural painkillers. Exercise also leads to improved sleep.
  • Gentle stretches: Yoga and tai chi both blend relaxation, breathing and stretching to reduce stress levels.
  • Good sleep hygiene: Improve your sleep by minimizing daytime naps, avoiding caffeine or alcohol close to bedtime, getting exercise and avoiding electronic devices before bed.
  • Massage: Whether you prefer a light touch or deep-tissue work, massage helps relieve built-up muscle tension in the shoulders, neck and scalp.
  • Mindfulness: Using your breath as a guide to keep your thoughts in the present can help reduce overall stress and pain.

Advertisement

Q: How do I know if my headache is a sign of something more serious?

A: The most common fear I hear is that headaches are a sign of a brain tumor or other problem. You don’t have to worry unless your headache comes with numbness or tingling, facial droop, or vision or cognitive changes. But if you’re over age 50 and only just starting to experience headaches, talk to your doctor.

Advertisement

Learn more about our editorial process.

Related Articles

man suffering from tension headache
November 24, 2020/Primary Care
Easing Your Tension Headaches: 7 Tips From a Chiropractor

Bad habits that lead to headaches and how to overcome them

Happy child sitting on stool in healthcare office, with toys around
How Common Is Autism?

Current research suggests 1 out of every 36 children in the U.S. has ASD — and that’s probably an undercount

Legs of healthcare provider and patient during rehabilitation
What Are the Differences in Left vs. Right Brain Strokes?

Strokes in the left side of the brain are more common and the effects are typically more noticeable

Teen in chair speaking with healthcare provider
7 Myths (and the Facts) About ADHD

The medical condition isn’t a learning disability and doesn’t always cause hyperactivity

Family and friends playing on beach
Can You Take an ADHD Medication Holiday?

There are times and cases when physician-supervised breaks may be beneficial

Person eating salad with oversized clock behind them
April 10, 2024/Brain & Nervous System
Eating Too Fast? Here Are 4 Ways To Slow Down

Eating mindfully, sipping water and chewing slowly can help your brain catch up with your stomach

Hand trying to write on paper, with hand shaking, tremoring
March 12, 2024/Brain & Nervous System
Seizure Warning Signs and Symptoms May Not Be What You Expect

Seizure symptoms can go far beyond convulsions and may include feelings of déjà vu, temporary confusion and unusual movements

Person experiencing COVID headache, with calendar months floating in background
March 11, 2024/Brain & Nervous System
What To Know About COVID Headaches

They can feel like a typical headache or a migraine headache, but the pain can last for weeks to months

Trending Topics

Female and friend jogging outside
How To Increase Your Metabolism for Weight Loss

Focus on your body’s metabolic set point by eating healthy foods, making exercise a part of your routine and reducing stress

stovetop with stainless steel cookware and glassware
5 Ways Forever Chemicals (PFAS) May Affect Your Health

PFAS chemicals may make life easier — but they aren’t always so easy on the human body

jar of rice water and brush, with rice scattered around table
Could Rice Water Be the Secret To Healthier Hair?

While there’s little risk in trying this hair care treatment, there isn’t much science to back up the claims

Ad