Tension-Type Headaches: Self-Care Measures for Relief
Headaches can interfere with daily life. But a healthy lifestyle can help you ease the pain. Start with diet, exercise and relaxation.
By Mayo Clinic staff
Almost everyone knows the pain of a tension headache. But the world doesn’t stop when the pain strikes. Medications can relieve the pain. But simply taking good care of yourself can help prevent headaches.
Meet a healthy lifestyle
A healthy lifestyle can promote good overall health. It can also help prevent all types of headaches, including tension-type headaches. Here are the basics:
- Eat nutritious foods regularly. Don’t skip meals, especially breakfast. Drink plenty of water every day.
- Do sports regularly. Exercise releases chemicals in the body that block pain signals to the brain. Talk to your doctor about exercise and choose activities that you enjoy. These include hiking, swimming or cycling. Be sure to start slowly though. Exercising too intensely can cause some types of headaches.
- get enough sleep Wake up and go to bed at the same time every day, even on weekends. Relax before you go to bed. If you don’t fall asleep within 15 minutes, get up and read or do something calming until you are sleepy. Avoid drugs that contain caffeine or other stimulants that can interfere with sleep. This may include some headache medications. Also, keep in mind that sleep apnea can cause tension-type headaches, especially if you have a headache in the morning. Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder in which breathing stops and starts again during the night. Visiting a doctor and treating sleep apnea can help relieve symptoms.
- Avoid large amounts of caffeine. Caffeine can help curb headaches. But heavy daily caffeine consumption can lead to headaches. In general, an intake of more than 400 milligrams of caffeine per day — more than about four cups of coffee — can cause headaches and irritability. Regular caffeine consumption also increases the risk of headaches. Avoiding caffeine can also cause headaches. This can happen if you suddenly stop or gradually cut back.
- Watch out for common painkillers. You can buy painkillers at the store. But using this drug more than nine days a month can make headache management more difficult. If this is the case, contact a doctor.
- Stop smoking. The nicotine in cigarette smoke reduces blood flow to the brain. It also triggers a reaction in the nerves at the back of the throat. These changes can lead to headaches.
keep stress under control
Stress and tension headaches often go hand in hand. Try these simple tips to reduce stress:
- Simplify your life. Don’t look for ways to squeeze more activities or tasks into your day. Instead, try to do less.
- Take a break. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, a few slow stretches or a brisk walk can help lower your stress levels.
- To breathe. Take several deep breaths and count to 10 to reduce the feeling of stress.
- Adjust your setting. Think positive thoughts. Don’t think something is impossible. Tell yourself you’re up to the challenge.
- Let go. Don’t worry about things you can’t control.
Relieve muscle tension
Tense muscles can trigger tension-type headaches. Apply heat to release tight neck and shoulder muscles. Use a heating pad on low, a hot water bottle, a hot shower or bath, a warm compress, or a hot towel. Or apply ice or a cool washcloth to your forehead.
Massage can also relieve muscle tension – and sometimes headaches too. Gently massage your temples, scalp, neck and shoulders with your fingertips or gently stretch your neck.
Take time out every day to relax. Try this breathing exercise:
- Lie on your back. Or sit comfortably with your feet flat on the floor and your hands on your lap.
- Imagine you are in a peaceful place like a beach or a quiet forest. Keep this scene in mind.
- Breathe in and out slowly and deeply for at least 10 minutes.
- When you’re done, sit quietly for a minute or two.
Try to practice these breathing exercises or some other form of relaxation every day.
Keep a headache diary
Journaling can help you identify what triggers your tension-type headache. Pay attention to when your headache starts and what activities you do. Also note how long the headache lasts and what provides relief. Journaling can help you spot patterns in your daily habits that can lead to headaches.
Watch for improvements in your headaches as you make additional changes to your healthy lifestyle.
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- Your guide to healthy sleep. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/all-publications-and-resources/your-guide-healthy-sleep. Retrieved August 13, 2020.
- LaRowe LR, et al. Pain, Nicotine and Tobacco Smoking: Current State of the Science. Pains. 2020; doi:10.1097/j.pain.0000000000001874.
- 3 tips to manage stress. American Heart Association. https://healthyforgood.heart.org/be-well/articles/3-tips-to-manage-stress. Retrieved September 15, 2022.
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- Bordeaux B, et al. Benefits and risks of caffeine and caffeinated beverages. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. Retrieved August 13, 2020.
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- Sun Gem C, et al. The evolution of medication-overuse headache: history, pathophysiology, and clinical update. CNS drugs. 2021; doi:10.1007/s40263-021-00818-9.
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