9 Steps for Instant Relief from Tension Headaches
“Oh, it’s just a headache.” If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard that on television or in a movie, I would probably be rich by now. But if you suffer from headaches, you know that there is no such thing as “just” a headache—not when they are chronic.
A bad enough headache or a persistent enough headache doesn’t just cramp your style—it sucks the life right out of you. It’s a torment that no one else can see. It makes you feel like you are a million miles away from everything but your agony.
If you’re looking for instant relief, you’re in the right place.
I’m not going to tell you that there’s a magic pill you can pop that will make your headaches disappear, but as a long-time sufferer of both migraines and tension headaches, I can give you a lot of advice for instant relief and long-term management and prevention.
In this article, I’m going to focus on tension headaches. You can read about instant relief for migraines here.
First things first, though. Let’s make sure you are suffering from tension headaches, not migraines (though you may have both). A lot of people use the two terms interchangeably, but they are two different beasts.
- Are less intense than migraines on average, typically manifesting as dull pressure or tightness (they can still be quite debilitating)
- Often encircle the sides and back of your head as well as your forehead, like a tight band around your skull (not always)
- May move to a different part of your head if you change positions
- Rarely involve throbbing pain
- May sometimes be located around the mouth or jaw, or even in the neck (especially if an alignment problem with the jaw is involved)
- May be located anywhere on your face or head, but usually are on one side
- Are often but not always localized to the temple, eye or ear
- Have a quality which is intense and often throbbing
- Are sometimes accompanied by light or sound sensitivity, halos, flashing lights, vision loss, nausea, or vomiting
- May sometimes manifest solely as nausea or light symptoms—without the head pain
It is entirely possible to have both tension headaches and migraines.
If you have a tension headache going right now and you are looking for quick relief, the steps below can help.
There is no foolproof way to defeat a headache, but I have a lot of painful experience with tension headaches, and the methods below have given me great results.
1. Medicate the pain if you need to.
A lot of people don’t like to hear this. They want to avoid painkillers at all costs. Sometimes this is out of stoicism, other times it is just a desire not to deal with the negative effects of pain meds.
I’m all for skipping medication if you can get away with it, but oftentimes taking some NSAIDs like Ibuprofen tablets really is the most effective way to nip a tension headache in the bud.
Oftentimes, it isn’t enough on its own; you need to also try some of the approaches listed below.
If you combine them, you may find that you can get relief with less medication.
I can just say from experience there is nothing more annoying than refusing to take two Ibuprofen tablets now … only to wind up taking four later because you were stubborn.
2. Let go of your tension.
Where do you hold tension in your body? A lot of us hold it in our shoulders. If it’s a habit, you may not even notice that you do it.
One great way to find out is to actually try and release all the tension in your body.
The easiest way to do this is to deliberately tense up your muscles … and then let it all go. You may need to do this several times to actually get the tension to fully release.
Once you learn to notice the difference between tense and relaxed, you can start to pay more attention throughout the day.
In particular, see if you can spot situations that tend to trigger you into tensing your shoulders up (like rush hour traffic or work meetings).
Take a moment to ask yourself during times like that, “Am I tensing up?” If you are, let it go.
3. Try deep breathing.
Another relaxation technique which helps a lot of people is to breathe deeply. To do this, try using the “box breathing” method.
- Begin by emptying out your lungs completely. Hold for a count of four.
- Inhale through your nose for a count of four.
- Hold the air in your lungs for another count of four.
- Release the air by breathing out for four counts through your nose.
Make sure that you are breathing through your diaphragm, not breathing from your chest. That way you get deep, easy breaths which involve less effort and provide you with more oxygen. Diaphragm breathing is far more efficient than chest breathing, but it can take some getting used to if you usually breathe from your chest. With enough practice, proper breathing becomes second nature.
4. Consider meditating.
Another great way to relax is to meditate. Meditation has produced significant pain reduction in patients with tension headaches in research studies.
One thing which is helpful to know about meditation is that there is no single way to approach it. Some people do well with zazen meditation, while others may do better with mindfulness or some other technique. You may even develop a technique which is yours alone. Regardless of what type of meditation you do, the key is to relax.
5. Change the position you are sitting or lying in.
It is actually amazing how helpful this can be, and how often it is overlooked by tension headache sufferers—probably because it can sometimes be inconvenient to drop what you are doing and assume the most helpful position.
You might need to lie down if you are sitting up, or sit up if you are lying down. Or in other cases, you may just need to adjust your position. It could be that lying on your right side is causing the grief, and turning over onto your back or left side may be best.
From my own experience, it seems that when a tense shoulder is causing the headache, it is best to lie on my other side. But when most of the tension is focused into my neck, it is best to lie on the same side as the tension.
Aside from that, I recommend experimenting, taking notes, and developing your intuition. Eventually you will probably discover some patterns that help you to choose the right position to relieve the tension.
6. Apply heat.
One fantastic way to soothe tense muscles and loosen them up is to apply heat. A hot shower works well, but if you suffer regular tension headaches, I recommend buying a heating pad. Apply it directly to where you feel the tension. Sometimes it takes a few tries to figure out where that is, since pain is easily referred by nerves. But over time, you should develop a feel for it.
How long do you need to apply heat? That depends entirely on how stiff and stubborn your muscles are. Sometimes a few minutes makes all the difference you need. Other times, you might want to use heat for hours periodically throughout the day. I find it very helpful to sleep with a heating pad at night. It isn’t advised to do this for safety reasons (check the precautions on your heating pad), so use your discretion and do so at your own risk.
7. Exercise or gentle stretching may help.
Sometimes stretching out stiff muscles can help them to loosen up. Depending on the part of your body which is referring pain to your head, this may mean gentle stretching for your neck, your back or your shoulders. Believe it or not, even tightness all the way down in the lower back can refer up to your head.
Make sure that you do not overdo it with your stretches. If you are too aggressive with them, you may actually just make the strain worse. You also need to be sure you are stretching properly. Improper stretching can exacerbate the situation as well. Give yourself breaks when you need them between your stretches and workouts.
8. Try massage.
Something else which can help a great deal with loosening up tight muscles is massage. In fact, long before I managed to get my tension headaches more or less under control, some of the first relief I remember feeling was when one of my housemates who was training to be a massage therapist worked on me.
I highly recommend that you go and see a professional for this now and again. Massage works great in conjunction with chiropractic care—more on that in a bit.
9. If you have a migraine as well, be sure to treat that too.
Don’t forget that you can actually experience two different kinds of headaches in tandem. If you notice classic signs of a migraine at the same time as your tension headache, be sure to also take steps to treat the migraine pain. If you get rid of one and not the other, the headache you got rid of may come right back. Plus, it is pretty hard to release tension when your temples are pounding. See our article on instant relief from migraine headaches.
You now know more about the steps you can take to treat an acute tension headache while it is in progress, but what can you do to prevent and treat chronic, recurring tension headaches?
- If you have a problem with joint alignment, get it adjusted. This is a common cause of tension headaches. If your spine is misaligned, or your jaw, that will put extra strain on your muscles. This will result in tension, and the tension will lead to head pain. The best way to deal with joint alignment issues is to go and see a chiropractor. A chiropractor can figure out what is out of alignment, and push everything back into place. You may need to do this periodically to keep your headaches at bay, depending on the issue. Many chiropractors are expensive, but if you shop around, you can find some outstanding deals.
- Treat any underlying injury. Sometimes tension headaches are rooted in some kind of injury which you have sustained. You may or may not remember it, and it may be recent or very old. If the injury is recent and can be treated, make sure you do so and that everything heals properly.
- Keep a regular sleep schedule and be sure you are getting plenty of rest. While you are at it, check your pillow and mattress to make sure they are providing you with the full support you need. If your pillow is not providing adequate support under your neck, consider investing in a neck pillow which maintains the appropriate curvature of your spine. Make sure you actually get a full night of sleep each night.
- Treat anxiety and depression. Both anxiety and depression contribute to overall stress levels, and all three can cause you to tense up as you go about your day. In some cases, this may be enough to cause regular tension headaches. In other cases, it will only exacerbate your headaches, whatever their underlying root cause. Do what you can to relax more. If you know what is causing your mood disorders and you can tackle those issues directly, do so.
- Correct problems with posture. How do you sit when you are typing at the computer or watching TV? How do you stand and walk? How do you sleep? Do you have adequate neck support, or does your pillow force your neck to curve the wrong way? Problems like these can all result in the loss of proper alignment, which puts unnecessary stress on your muscles, leading to tension. Fixing these problems may be essential to putting an end to your headaches.
- Remove unnecessary stressors from your life. Anything that can make you feel stressed can also cause you to tense up in response to that perceived threat. If there are stressors in your life you can eliminate, do so. The more you can relax, the easier it will be for you to prevent tension headaches. It can also be helpful for you to develop more effective coping techniques.
Conclusion: Tension Headaches are Stubbornly Recurrent, But You Can Beat Them
When tension gets a grip on you, it can be very hard to get back to a place where you are relaxed and pain-free. Oftentimes, it means taking time to relax and be kinder to yourself, even when your life is filled with stress and responsibility. If you do this diligently and take steps to prevent tension headaches in the future, you can learn how to get immediate relief and lasting results.