Tension Headaches: Avoiding and Relieving the Pain

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There are many different types of headaches plaguing millions of people daily, but the most common headache is known as the “tension headache.”  While these headaches can be caused by tension and stress, the name originally referred to the belief that muscles in the head were tense and tight, causing pain.  This theory isn’t accurate, and the headaches are not actually caused by tightened muscles. This category of headache is now also called “tension-type” headaches.

Tension headaches are uncomfortable, but they aren’t severe and debilitating like a migraine.  Tension headaches may feel like a tight band pressing around your head, sometimes affecting your jaw or shoulders, and possibly even giving you a stiff, sore neck as well.  While the pain may seem to come from both sides of the head, you won’t have the light sensitivity, vomiting and nausea associated with other headache types.  A tension headache is a nuisance, but not severe.  You can still function and perform every day activities; physical exertion and exposure to lights and sounds will not worsen the pain.

If you suffer tension headaches, lifestyle changes and some medications will help.

Why Do We Get Tension Headaches?

Lady sitting at desk holding head in her hands because she has a tension headache or migraine

 Tension headaches may be the most common headache, but doctors still don’t understand them fully like they do cluster or migraine headaches.  There seems to be some common triggers, though, such as:

  • Sleeping in an uncomfortable position
  • Grinding the teeth or clenching the jaw
  • Medications, like those taken for organ transplants, HIV and heartburn
  • Too much time spent on your devices
  • Sleeping in a cold room
  • Some mental or emotional triggers, such as anxiety, stress or depression
  • Fatigue
  • Skipping meals
  • Too much caffeine, or caffeine withdrawal (it’s always better to ease off caffeine gradually)

Can I Prevent Tension Headaches?

There are a few lifestyle changes you can take to stop tension headaches from forming.  If you suffer these headaches, try:

  1. Better Sleep Habits

In general, better sleep will ease many types of headaches including the pesky tension headache.  A study on quality sleep and headaches revealed that those subjects who slept less than six hours per night got more frequent and severe headaches than those who were able to sleep longer.  Be careful not to overdo your sleep, though, because sleeping too much can also trigger these headaches.  The best solution is to aim for between seven to nine hours of sleep.

Some ways to ensure a better night’s sleep may include:

  • Keep the screens out of the bedroom:  Stay off of your devices at bedtime.  Your body is tricked into thinking it is daylight by the light of your laptop or mobile devices.  Avoid reading online, texting, or watching movies at bedtime.
  • Don’t eat around bedtime:  Eating large meals too close to bedtime will affect your quality of sleep, as will nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol.
  • Avoid napping:  Catching a few Zzz’s during the day may seem like a good idea at the time, but it will wreck your sleep patterns at bedtime.
  • Don’t fight it:  If you can’t fall asleep, get out of bed and go elsewhere to read or do something relaxing in a low light setting until you feel sleepier.
  • Keep your routines:  Make sure you follow a routine.  Always try to go to bed and get up every day at the same time.
  1. Ease Your Stress

Try to minimize your stress in whatever way you can.  This is not only helpful in preventing headaches, it is also a way to be healthier overall.  Try these easy relaxation techniques:

  • Muscle relaxation:  This technique is also a way to help you fall asleep at night.  Lie down, eyes closed, and begin to focus on every part of your body from your toes to your head.  As you mentally touch on each body part, consciously relax it.
  • Meditation:  Meditation is not complicated.  It’s a mind over matter exercise that focuses on breathing, images, words, or whatever you choose to focus on.  During your meditation, your mind will wander; when it does, consciously let the distracting thoughts go and return to your focus subject.  You don’t need to be a relaxed individual, follow any particular religion or “guru” to meditate, and there is no one type that is better than any other.  They are all useful, so find one that works best for you.  Experiment with techniques, mix and match; the idea is to find a way to relax.
  • Just breathe:  Similar to meditation, breathing exercises are very effective ways to relax, and you can do them any time you start to feel stressed.  While sitting (or lying down), consciously fill your lungs with air and concentrate on your belly as it rises.  Release the air slowly and repeat several times.
  1. Avoid Alcohol Consumption

Obviously, most people can have an alcoholic drink or two and not get headaches.  Nearly one-third of those who suffer frequent migraine headaches, though, will have the pain brought on by drinking alcohol.   Consuming alcohol has also been shown to lead to the other types of headaches, such as cluster and tension headaches.  To understand why alcohol can trigger headaches, we need to understand the affects of alcohol on the body.

Alcohol is a vasodilator, which means that it naturally allows increased blood flow by widening blood vessels.  This can cause a headache and is the side effect of many medications that are used to widen blood vessels, such as blood pressure medications.

Alcohol is also a diuretic, which means your body will lose fluids and valuable electrolytes through frequent bathroom visits. When you lose fluids, you will suffer dehydration which can worsen existing headaches or cause them.  If you are trying to sleep, this will lead to disrupted sleep patterns as well. 

  1. Identify and Eliminate Trigger Foods

Intolerance to certain foods can be a contributing factor to your frequent headaches. Elimination diets are ways to pinpoint any specific foods that cause problems and avoid them.

Some of the foods that seem to be linked to headaches are chocolate, alcohol, coffee, aged cheeses, citrus fruits, and chocolate.  Studies showed that for some headache sufferers, a twelve-week elimination diet seemed to decrease the frequency of migraine headaches starting at around four weeks into the diet.

Additionally, histamines are shown to trigger headaches in those who suffer migraines.  Histamines occur naturally in the body and are also found in some foods like fermented foods, cured meats, aged cheese, smoked fish, wine and beer.  While histamine plays a vital part in the digestive, immune, and nervous systems, some people cannot tolerate excess levels of the chemical because they lack certain enzymes that are needed to break it down.  The result is too much histamine, and headaches.  If you suffer frequent headaches, try cutting foods high in histamines from your diet.

  1. Dietary Supplements

Some dietary supplements may decrease the frequency and severity of your headaches. These include:

  • Coenzyme Q10: CoQ10 is naturally produced by the body and is needed to turn foods into energy.  It is also an antioxidant.  Taking additional CoQ10 has been shown to reduce the frequency and severity of headaches in several studies.  Taking between 100mg to 300mg of this supplement lessens migraine headache pain and the symptoms that accompany it such as nausea and vomiting.
  • B Vitamins: The B vitamins are essential water-soluble nutrients that are important in many ways.  They are related to the production of energy, triggering neurotransmitters that turn foods into energy.  Additionally, studies have shown that regularly taking B supplements such as folate, B12, B2 (riboflavin) and B6 (pyridoxine) will reduce the frequency and severity of headaches.  B vitamins are inexpensive and completely safe; any excess vitamins the body doesn’t need are naturally flushed from the body.  Look for B complex supplements that contain all eight B vitamins.
  • Magnesium: Magnesium is a key player in the body, performing many functions such as controlling nerve transmissions and blood sugar levels.  People who have magnesium deficiencies will suffer more frequent and severe headaches than those who have appropriate magnesium levels.  600mg of an oral magnesium supplement daily is an effective and safe way to fend off headaches.  Be careful with magnesium, though, as too much may cause some digestive issues like diarrhea.  Start with a lower dose of the supplement at first.

Easing Your Tension Headache


When you develop a nagging tension headache, your only thought is getting rid of it quickly.  There are several ways to combat the pain and send your headache packing naturally.

Headache frequency and duration were decreased in a study of the effectiveness of massage and manipulation therapy for tension headaches.

  1. Cold Compresses: This is a time-tested treatment that is as effective now as it was when your great-grandparents were using it to ease their own headaches.  Cold compresses are proven to decrease inflammation, constrict blood vessels, and slow nerve conduction to ease the pain of a headache.  Recent studies proved that among test subjects, applying a cold pack (gel filled) reduced the severity of migraine pain.  You can buy pre-filled gel cold packs to be kept in the freeze or make your own by filling a waterproof bag with ice and wrapping a soft towel around it. Apply cold compresses to the temples, the forehead, or the neck to ease the pain of a headache.
  2. Drink Water: Not only can dehydration lead to a headache, it is a very common cause of many tension headaches and migraines.  Dehydration not only causes headaches, it can also lead to irritability and impaired focus and concentration which will make the headache even worse.  Drink enough water throughout the day and eat foods, such as fruits, that are rich in water to avoid headaches.  If a headache develops, drinking water will ease symptoms within a half hour to three hours if the headache is caused by dehydration.
  3. Have Some Caffeine: It’s seldom you will be encouraged to drink coffee by health professionals, but caffeine can help ease the pain of a headache.  Caffeine constricts blood vessels and improves your mood and levels of alertness, which will relieve the pain of a headache.  Caffeine also works synergistically with over the counter medications, meaning that consuming caffeine will increase the effectiveness of ibuprofen and other pain relievers.  Be wary of your total daily intake of caffeine, though, because stopping consumption suddenly can lead to headaches.
  4. Essential Oils: Liquids that contain highly concentrated levels of plant based aromatic compounds are called essential oils and are effective for many things, such as relieving stress and easing headache pain.  Most are used topically, some are heated, and others can be ingested.  For headaches, try peppermint and lavender oils to ease the pain.  Peppermint is effective for soothing tension headaches while lavender is good for migraines.  Apply these oils to the top of the upper lip (under the nose) and inhale them for relief.

Tension headaches, the most common type of headache, are annoying but non-life threatening.  They can be avoided with a few life changes, or easily treated with natural methods or over the counter medications.  Unlike other debilitating types of headaches, tension headaches will seldom interfere with your daily activities.

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