March 10, 2020

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.

Advertisement

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.

Advertisement

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.

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.

Related Articles

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

Bad habits that lead to headaches and how to overcome them

blurred person looking out window in background with glass of wine and bottle in foreground
February 21, 2024
How Does Alcohol Affect Your Brain?

Even one drink can have an impact on your cognitive function leading to slurred speech, blurred vision and impaired memory

female on couch reading a nasal spray bottle label
February 20, 2024
What To Know About Nasal Spray for Migraines

Among the options is a fast-acting medication that offers relief in as little as 15 minutes

two people doing jumping jacks on pavement outside
February 19, 2024
How Exercise Can Help Boost Your Memory

Cardio is great for improving cognition, but strength and balance training are just as important

Caregiver and elderly male with head bent down
February 2, 2024
After Your Stroke: How To Handle 14 Common Complications

Your age, the type of stroke you had, the cause and the location can all impact your recovery

close up of caregiver's hands helping elderly person using a walker
January 2, 2024
Long-Term Care Options for Someone With Alzheimer’s Disease

It’s critical to understand the wishes of your loved one and seek their involvement whenever possible

female caregiver with hand on back of elderly woman in wheelchair
December 25, 2023
How to Care For Someone With Alzheimer’s Disease

Your loved one may need help with daily activities, managing nutritional challenges and adapting their living space

female looking down at smartphone, rubbing back of neck
December 18, 2023
How Your Smartphone May Be Giving You ‘Text Neck’

You can relieve this condition by improving your posture and using a variety of movements

Trending Topics

glass of cherry juice with cherries on table
Sleepy Girl Mocktail: What’s in It and Does It Really Make You Sleep Better?

This social media sleep hack with tart cherry juice and magnesium could be worth a try

Exercise and diet over three months is hard to accomplish.
Everything You Need To Know About the 75 Hard Challenge

Following five critical rules daily for 75 days may not be sustainable

Person in foreground standing in front of many presents with person in background holding gift bags.
What Is Love Bombing?

This form of psychological and emotional abuse is often disguised as excessive flattery

Ad