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Help for Tension Headaches

Almost everyone has a tension headache from time to time. These headaches aren’t caused by an underlying disorder. They are so common they are considered to be “garden-variety” headaches.

The main symptom of a tension headache is a sense of tightness around the head, according to the National Headache Foundation (NHF). Neck and shoulder muscles often become tense and sore to the touch, contributing 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 three times a week, over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen are usually effective. Medications that combine pain medication with caffeine may help some people, but they can be habit-forming. Don’t use any OTC pain reliever more than two or three days a week. Using OTC pain relievers more frequently than that can actually cause rebound headaches when you stop taking the medication, the NHF says.

Relieve stress

Try relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, yoga, or meditation. Many people find progressive muscle relaxation helpful. Tense one 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, such as walking, swimming, or biking, can help reduce the frequency of tension headaches. If you already have a headache, exercise may help alleviate 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 cloth to protect your skin.

If you often have tension headaches more than twice a week, see your doctor. You may benefit from taking a preventive medication.

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