Skip to main content

Health Encyclopedia

Search the Health Encyclopedia

Managing tension headaches at home

Description

A tension headache is pain or discomfort in your head, scalp, or neck. Tension headache is a common type of headache. It can occur at any age, but is most common in teens and adults.

A tension headache occurs when neck and scalp muscles become tense, or contract. The muscle contractions can be a response to stress, depression, a head injury, or anxiety.

Alternative Names

Tension-type headache - self-care; Muscle contraction headache - self-care; Headache - benign - self-care; Headache - tension- self-care; Chronic headaches - tension - self-care; Rebound headaches - tension - self-care

When you Have a Tension Headache

Hot or cold showers or baths may relieve a headache for some people. You may also want to rest in a quiet room with a cool cloth on your forehead.

Gently massaging your head and neck muscles may provide relief.

If your headaches are due to stress or anxiety, you may want to learn ways to relax.

Over-the-counter pain medicine, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen, may relieve pain. If you are planning to take part in an activity that you know will trigger a headache, taking pain medicine beforehand may help.

Follow your health care provider's instructions about how to take your medicines. Rebound headaches are headaches that keep coming back. They can occur from overuse of pain medicine. If you take pain medicine more than 3 days a week on a regular basis, you can develop rebound headaches.

Be aware that aspirin and ibuprofen can irritate your stomach. If you take acetaminophen, DO NOT take more than a total of 3,000 mg a day to avoid liver damage.

Preventing Tension Headaches

Knowing your headache triggers can help you avoid situations that cause your headaches. A headache diary can help. When you get a headache, write down the following:

  • Day and time the pain began
  • What you ate and drank over the past 24 hours
  • How much you slept
  • What you were doing and where you were right before the pain started
  • How long the headache lasted and what made it stop

Review your diary with your provider to identify triggers or a pattern to your headaches. This can help you and your provider create a treatment plan. Knowing your triggers can help you avoid them.

Lifestyle changes that may help include:

  • Use a different pillow or change sleeping positions.
  • Practice good posture when reading, working, or doing other activities.
  • Exercise and stretch your back, neck, and shoulders often when typing, working on computers, or doing other close-up work.
  • Get more vigorous exercise. This is exercise that gets your heart beating fast. (Check with your provider about what kind of exercise is best for you.)
  • Have your eyes checked. If you have glasses, use them.
  • Learn and practice stress management. Some people find relaxation exercises or meditation helpful.

If your provider prescribes medicines to prevent headaches or help with stress, follow instructions exactly on how to take them. Tell your provider about any side effects.

When to Call the Doctor

Call 911 if:

  • You are experiencing "the worst headache of your life."
  • You have speech, vision, or movement problems or loss of balance, especially if you have not had these symptoms with a headache before.
  • A headache starts suddenly.

Schedule an appointment or call your provider if:

  • Your headache pattern or pain changes.
  • Treatments that once worked no longer help.
  • You have side effects from your medicine.
  • You are pregnant or could become pregnant. Some medicines should not be taken during pregnancy.
  • You need to take pain medicines more than 3 days a week.
  • Your headaches are more severe when lying down.

References

Freitag F. Managing and treating tension-type headache. Med Clin N Am. 2013;97(2):281-292. PMID: 23419626 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23419626.

Garza I, Schwedt TJ, Robertson CE, Smith JH. Headache and other craniofacial pain. In: Daroff RB, Jankovic J, Mazziotta JC, Pomeroy SL, eds. Bradley's Neurology in Clinical Practice. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 103.

Schoenen J, Sava SL. Tension-type headache. In: McMahon SB, Koltzenburg M, Tracey I, Turk DC, eds. Wall and Melzack's Textbook of Pain. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2013:chap 59.

Silberstein SD. Headache management. In: Benzon HT, Rathmell JP, Wu CL, et al, eds. Practical Management of Pain. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2014:chap 30.

Review Date:1/5/2016
Reviewed By:Joseph V. Campellone, MD, Division of Neurology, Cooper University Hospital, Camden, NJ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997-A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

adam.com

The Agency for Health Care Administration (Agency) and this website do not claim the information on, or referred to by, this site is error free. This site may include links to websites of other government agencies or private groups. Our Agency and this website do not control such sites and are not responsible for their content. Reference to or links to any other group, product, service, or information does not mean our Agency or this website approves of that group, product, service, or information.

Additionally, while health information provided through this website may be a valuable resource for the public, it is not designed to offer medical advice. Talk with your doctor about medical care questions you may have.

We Appreciate Your Feedback!
1. Did you find this information useful?
         Yes
         No
2. Would you recommend this website to family and friends?
         Yes
         No