If you get tension headaches, you know how annoying they can be. For many people, these frequent sources of pain can be outright debilitating. Many stay home from work, cancel social engagements or leave work or events early because of their headaches. But your headaches don't have to control your life. You can often prevent tension headaches before they begin or take steps to reduce their severity. When you have a headache, there are a variety of options available to you to put a stop to the pain. Here, some tips to help you cope:
- Don't just assume that your head pain is only a headache
A tension headache is not usually a symptom of a serious medical condition. However, many serious conditions can cause head pain similar to a tension headache. If your headache occurs with other symptoms, such as nausea, changes in vision, speech problems or fever, see your doctor. If you cannot sleep or think clearly due to your headache, see your doctor. If your normal pattern of headaches suddenly changes, gets worse when you are active, or does not go away, seek medical attention.
- Don't take too many painkillers
Too many prescription and over-the-counter pain medications can actually cause more headaches. In some cases, they may even lead to chronic daily headaches. These medication-induced headaches are called rebound headaches. To prevent them, you should take over-the-counter pain medication only when it is necessary. When pain medications are used, take the smallest dose needed to provide relief.
If you get rebound headaches, cut back on the pain medications you are taking. If possible, don't take over-the-counter pain medications more than two times a week. If you are taking prescription pain medication, do not exceed the dosage recommended by your doctor.
- Give preventive medications time to work
Medications used to prevent tension headaches can take several weeks to work. It may take months before you notice a difference. Don't give up on something just because you don't see an immediate result.
Keep your doctor informed on how your medications are affecting you, and follow your doctor's orders. Voice your concerns, but don't stop taking the medications without your doctor's consent. If you stick with it, you may find the results well worth the wait.
- Figure out what's triggering your headache and avoid it
Tension-headache triggers are different for different people. Keep a headache diary for a while to identify the triggers for your headache. Record details about your headache and the circumstances surrounding it. Once you know what's making your headache start, you can avoid it. Sometimes it's as simple as making sure you don't skip breakfast.
- Don't let yourself get stressed out
Stress is a very common trigger for tension headaches. Relax, breathe and don't try to do too many things at once. There are a number of ways to help you relieve stress, including breathing exercises, yoga and meditation. Plan your day so you'll know what you need to do and when you need to do it. If you seem to have too many responsibilities throughout the day, try delegating some of them to other family members. Relaxing your muscles may also help. Try using hot or cold compresses, baths or showers. Get a massage.
- Don't strain your eyes
Eyestrain is another common trigger for tension headaches. Have your eyes checked, and if you need glasses or contacts, wear them. Working in poor lighting conditions can also cause eyestrain. Read in a well-lit room. Don't try to do delicate work without plenty of light. If your eyes feel strained, try turning up the light or resting them for a while.
- Try aerobic exercises
Inactivity may trigger a tension headache. Regular aerobic exercises, including walking, swimming and bicycling, can reduce the frequency and severity of tension headaches. These activities help relax the muscles and increase the levels of the body's natural stress relievers. Exercise can also relieve the pain of an existing headache. It's also good for your overall health.
- Watch your posture
Poor posture can trigger a tension headache and good posture can help prevent one. Don't slouch. When standing, hold your shoulders back and your head high. Pull in your stomach and tuck in your chin. When sitting, keep your thighs parallel to the ground and don't slump. Don't sit or stand in any one position for too long at a time. Get up and move around when you get a chance.
- Consider complementary therapies
There are many ways to ease the pain of your headache without medications. You might want to try acupuncture or acupressure. These therapies use thin needles or pressure on specific points of your body to ease pain. Biofeedback, cognitive behavioral therapy or electrical therapy may also help. Biofeedback trains you to control your pain, while cognitive behavioral therapy teaches you to think positively. Electrical therapy uses mild electrical currents to stimulate your nerves and muscles. You could also try smelling a salve of ginger, peppermint and wintergreen oils, or rubbing it on your temples and the nape of your neck.
- Don't let yourself get frustrated
Every individual's headache is different, and what works for another person might not work for you. You may need to try several different medications or therapies. Combinations of medications work better for some women. Make sure your doctor knows what you are taking, though, and don't combine any medications without your doctor's approval.
- Keep a positive outlook
Many people who suffer from frequent tension headaches become anxious or depressed. This anxiety and depression can, in turn, cause more headaches and make them worse. It may help you to find a headache support group. Don't let yourself get down. Headaches are a bother, but they're not something you can't overcome.
Reviewed by Vikas Garg, M.D., MSA