Treating Tension Headaches

Submitted by SharpHealth Team on Friday 8th October 2010
In this article
  • How to recognize a tension headache.
  • What causes a tension headache?
  • Treating headaches.
  • When it's time to go to the doctor.

According to the National Headache Foundation (, over 45 million Americans experience recurring headaches. A huge percentage of those headaches are of the "tension headache" variety. What can you do? Read on for our SharpHealth tips:

How to Recognize a Tension Headache

There are a few different types of headaches you may suffer from, but recognizing a tension headache is relatively easy. The pain from this type of headache generally feels like it is "all over" your head — at the base of the neck, in the temples and at the top of your forehead. Unlike migraine headaches, the pain associated with tension headaches is dull (as opposed to throbbing).

While these headaches are uncomfortable and painful, it is possible to continue working (by contrast, those suffering from migraine headaches usually have to leave their workplace and rest). Of course, the fact that they don’t require a "sick day" doesn’t mean that tension headaches are easy to ignore. Quite the opposite. Tension headaches can affect your mood and concentration and make your entire day a misery. With this in mind, check out these SharpHealth tips for treating and preventing tension headaches:

What Causes a Tension Headache?

Tensions headaches are generally the result of muscular contractions in the scalp and neck. By determining the cause of your tension headaches, you can address the problem and help prevent the next one. Your headache may be the result of one single cause or a combination of the following:

  • Stress and anxiety. As the name suggests, tension headaches often result from a high level of daily stress. The tensing of neck muscles often leads to pain that may occur occasionally or every day, depending on the level of stress in your life. Many SharpMen suffer a single headache if they experience extreme emotions — like anger or frustration. SharpMen who are under constant stress can suffer headaches on a daily basis. Daily headaches are often called "chronic tension headaches."
  • Lack of sleep. Sleep is nature's way of reviving the body and keeping it balanced and healthy. Without a good night's sleep, SharpMen often feel tired and irritable and leave themselves open to headaches.
  • Unhealthy lifestyle. Exercise and nutritious foods keep the body healthy. If you stay indoors, fail to get exercise and live on fast food, it shouldn’t surprise you when small levels of tension lead to tension headaches. Your body simply has less to work with.
  • Over-reliance on headache pills. For occasional headaches, over-the-counter medications can quickly dispense with pain. Ironically, if you rely on these pain relievers too often, and in too great a quantity, it can "lead" to even more headaches. Why? According to the New England Center for Headaches Web site (, daily intake of painkillers may cause your brain and body to become reliant on the analgesics in the pain relievers, leading to chemical changes in the brain — and more headaches.

Treating Headaches

There is no one-cure-fits-all remedy for tension headaches. By trial and error, you can find what works for you. Often a combination of treatments work, so try out the following to find your ultimate cure-all:

  • Relax. Stressful situations lead to tension, which in turn can lead to headaches. If you begin to feel tense, take a few seconds to close your eyes and breathe deeply. Learn more about relaxation techniques like visualization, stretching and advanced breathing exercises. Forcing yourself to relax can stave off an oncoming headache.
  • Get some fresh air. If you feel a headache coming on at the office or when sitting in front of the computer, take a short break and go outside. Fresh air will often clear away tension. A short, brisk walk also helps.
  • Watch your caffeine intake. While you may find that one cup of coffee can clear away the occasional headache, this is not a solution for those suffering on a regular basis. Limit your coffee consumption to one or two cups per day.
  • Take a pain reliever. Over-the-counter pills can work wonders on the average, occasional headache. Don’t pop these pills more than twice a week, however, or you may exacerbate the problem.
  • Use an ice pack. Placing an ice pack on your forehead, the back of your neck or on your temples may help. Some SharpMen prefer a hot towel on the temples. Try both and see what works best for you.
  • Exercise regularly. Exercise helps to reduce mental stress and ease tension in the body, so it follows that it can help alleviate tension headaches.
  • Eat well. Along with exercise, eating regular and healthy meals is essential for mental and physical maintenance. Your body works with what you give it, right? Lots of vegetables and regular meals with other nutritious components can work wonders for your overall health — and those headaches.
  • Make changes in your life. If your job is excessively stressful, consider how you can improve your working conditions. If no changes are possible, perhaps it's time to change jobs. Address whatever is making you tense and change the situation. No cure will work on your headaches if the original cause remains.
  • Try physical therapy, massage or chiropractic. These treatments can be very effective for relieving stress and tension in the back and neck muscles, which in turn can alleviate headaches. See Physical Therapy or Chiropractic Care – Which Is Best for You? for more details.

When to Go to the Doctor

Treating headaches on your own may work for most SharpMen, but some will continue to suffer regardless of their efforts. If you fall into this category, it may be time for you to consult a physician. How do you know when it's time to seek help?

You're taking headache pills more than three times a week. Taking pain relievers too often can and does lead to more headaches. If you reach for the tablets every day, then it's time to see your doctor.

You have other problems apart from stress. While stress is the number one cause of tension headaches, occasionally they may be caused by more serious problems, such as jaw or sinus trouble, back pain, pinched nerves in the neck or poor eyesight. Frequent headaches can also be signs of an aneurysm or brain tumor. So if your suffering continues, consult a physician for a more advanced treatment program.

This article last updated on Friday 8th October 2010
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