How to Treat a Tension Headache

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on November 12, 2017
2 min read

First, check that it really is a tension headache. Usually it causes tightness or pressure in a band-like area around your forehead and head. The pain won't be intense, either.

Medicine, stress relief, and keeping up a healthy lifestyle are some of the best ways to treat and prevent your tension headaches.

You can often find relief on your own without seeing a doctor. Try these over-the-counter (OTC) painkillers:

  • Acetaminophen
  • Aspirin
  • Ibuprofen
  • Naproxen

Medicines that combine acetaminophen, aspirin, and caffeine are also helpful.

Studies show aspirin to be the OTC medication that works best for relieving pain, and they show that ibuprofen works better than acetaminophen. Talk to your doctor about what's best for you.

No matter which type of over-the-counter pain relief you take, it's important to use only the recommended amount. If you take too much medication, it can lead to "rebound" or "medication overuse" headaches. It can also cause problems with your liver, kidneys, stomach, and other organs.

If OTC options don't make your pain go away, your doctor might try prescription-strength pain relievers.

Sometimes, neither of these gets rid of pain. At that point, your doctor might move on to something stronger, says Mark W. Green, MD, director of the Mount Sinai Center for Headache and Pain Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine in New York.

These drug-free methods aren't quick fixes because you'll need to learn how to use them. But you may want to consider them for the future.

Biofeedback. This process uses an electronic machine to measure how well your body relaxes. It's a way to train yourself to ease a tension headache.

Cognitive behavioral therapy. A therapist helps you to spot thoughts and beliefs that cause you stress, which can trigger a headache.

Some people use massage, chiropractic, and acupuncture, too.

"The treatments with the most science behind them are cognitive behavioral therapy and biofeedback," Green says. "Those are the ones with the highest levels of evidence to support them."

The best way to deal with tension headaches is to keep them from happening in the first place. Try to figure out what sets off your pain, and work to avoid these triggers. Some common ones include:

  • Stress
  • Bad posture
  • Not enough sleep
  • Unhealthy eating habits
  • Smoking

"Stress reduction can reduce tension headache episodes, as can good posture, diet, and exercise," Green says. "People who sit at a computer all day long don't move their neck. That can be a trigger."

If your tension headaches happen more than four times a month, your doctor may suggest that you take medicine to prevent them. These can include:

Antidepressants such as:

  • Amitriptyline (Elavil), nortriptyline (Pamelor), and venlafaxine (Effexor)

Anti-seizure drugs such as:

  • Topiramate (Topamax)
  • Gabapentin (Neurontin)