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Tension Headaches - Treatment Overview

You can treat most tension headaches with:

  • Over-the-counter pain medicines.
  • Prescription drugs if you have chronic or very bad headaches.
  • Avoiding things that trigger your headaches.
  • Meditation and other ways to lower your stress.

Over-the-counter medicines to stop headaches

Medicines can help you feel better. But they can also be dangerous, especially if you don't take them the right way. Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.

  • Try these drugs first. Most doctors recommend that you try over-the-counter drugs first if you have mild to moderate headaches. They may have fewer side effects than prescription drugs. These medicines include:
    • Acetaminophen, such as Tylenol.
    • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin (for example, Bayer) and ibuprofen (for example, Motrin).
    • Medicine that combines aspirin, acetaminophen, and caffeine, such as Excedrin.
  • Don't take this medicine too often. Try not to take over-the-counter drugs more than 3 times a week, because you may get rebound headaches. These are different from tension headaches. They are usually triggered after pain medicine has worn off, prompting you to take another dose. After a while, you get a headache whenever you stop taking the medicine.

Prescription medicines to stop headaches

In some cases, your doctor may prescribe stronger medicine if over-the-counter drugs don't stop your headaches. These medicines may include barbiturates or narcotics. But these drugs can be habit-forming, so they should be used rarely and only for a short time.

Prescription medicines to prevent headaches

You may want to try medicine to prevent a headache if:

  • You are using medicines to stop headaches more than 3 times a week.
  • Medicines to stop headaches aren't working well for you.

Your doctor may have you try one or more medicines, such as an antidepressant or a medicine that prevents seizures. These medicines can help prevent headaches even if you don't have depression or seizures.

Avoiding triggers

You may be able to prevent or reduce tension headaches by learning what causes your headaches and trying to avoid those triggers. For more information, see Living With Tension Headaches.

Reducing stress

How you think can affect how you feel. So finding ways to relax and stop negative thoughts may help prevent headaches.

You may want to try:

  • Techniques to stop negative thoughts.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation.
  • Ways to manage your time.
  • Breathing exercises.
  • Guided imagery.
  • Meditation.
  • Yoga.

For more information, see Living With Tension Headaches.

Treatment if headaches get worse

If you continue to have tension headaches while you are getting treatment, you and your doctor may want to try another treatment.

You may have to try different drugs or doses. If you have already tried several medicines, your doctor may order tests (such as an MRI or CT scan) to find out if a health problem is causing your headaches.

Other things to think about

  • Even with treatment, you will most likely still get some tension headaches. But you probably will get them less often. And they may hurt less when you do get them.
  • If you also have depression or anxiety, talk to your doctor. Treatment for these health problems also may help you have fewer headaches.

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: March 12, 2014
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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