Almost everyone has a tension headache from time to time. These headaches do not have an underlying cause. 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. This contributes to the intensity of a tension headache. The headache may last only a few hours, or it may linger for a day or more.
For tension headaches that occur less than 3 times a week, over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers like 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 2 days or 3 days a week. Using OTC pain relievers more often than that can actually cause rebound headaches, the NHF says. These are headaches that return when you stop taking the medication. They can sometimes be even worse than the original headaches.
Try relaxation practices like deep breathing, yoga, or meditation. Many people find progressive muscle relaxation helpful. Tense 1 muscle group at a time, then completely release the tension until every muscle group in the body is relaxed.
A healthier lifestyle that promotes general good health also may help prevent headaches. Follow a regular eating and sleeping schedule. Regular aerobic exercise, like walking, swimming, or biking, can help reduce how often you get tension headaches. If you already have a headache, exercise may help lessen the pain. Just be sure to drink fluid while exercising since dehydration can make headaches worse.
Give yourself a massage to relieve tension. Gently rub the muscles of your head, neck, and shoulders with your fingertips.
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 health care provider. You may benefit from taking a medication before you experience the next headache.