Tips to Stop Tension Headaches Before They Start

Tension headaches happen when the muscles in your neck, shoulders, and scalp tense up. You may not be able to avoid them completely. But if you can make changes in your daily life, it may help stop these headaches before they start.

Work With Your Feelings

When you feel stressed out, anxious, or angry, the way you handle those feelings may make a difference in whether you get a tension headache or not.

Everyone has stress in their life. Try to cut back on how much you have. When you can't avoid it, look for different ways to handle those stressful situations.

Try to pace yourself in your daily life. Take breaks. Carve out time to do things you enjoy. For some people, mindfulness -- staying in the here and now, instead of following thoughts of worry and fear -- can help.

Build your support system. Spend time with people you love. You may also want to book some sessions with a therapist to find solutions and to manage any anxiety or depression you may have.

Try Relaxation Techniques

They can ease stress and muscle tension.

Try deep breathing, meditation, yoga, or hypnotherapy. Biofeedback uses electrodes to teach you how to recognize tension and relax your muscles before they tighten up. Guided imagery helps you focus on different body parts to relax and release tension. Acupuncture can also help.

Do exercises every day to relax, stretch, and strengthen the muscles in your head, shoulders, and neck. A heating pad may also ease muscle tension. Any workout is also a good way to burn off stress.

Check Your Body Position

Hunched over your computer? Slept in an uncomfortable position? Activities that put your body in awkward positions can lead to headaches.

Pay attention to how you hold your body, especially for long periods of time. Take breaks often. Walk around. Stretch. Try not to slouch.

Don't cradle your phone on your shoulder. Hold it in your hand or use a hands-free device.

Try not to clench your jaw or grind your teeth.

Rest Up

When your body is tired, you're more likely to get a tension headache. Fatigue is a common trigger.

Create good sleeping habits. Go to bed at the same time every night. Wake up at the same time every morning. Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep a night.

Continued

Exercise Regularly

Exercise releases endorphins, which are chemicals that help your brain and your body feel good. The boost in your heart rate also protects your body from pain.

If you're not active now, start slowly with 10 minutes a day.

Think Twice About Medication

If you take medicine for your headaches -- like acetaminophen, ibuprofen, aspirin, or pain relievers with caffeine -- you may get what's called rebound headaches when you stop taking it.

To prevent them, limit how much you take. Use the smallest possible dose. Don't take pain relievers more than one or two times a week.

When to See Your Doctor

If you've tried all of these lifestyle habits and you still get tension headaches, tell your doctor. She may use a local anesthetic to relax trigger points.

Your doctor may suggest taking a daily medication that can prevent chronic tension headaches, like:

  • Antidepressants, like amitriptyline (Elavil) and venlafaxine (Effexor)
  • Seizure medication, like gabapentin (Neurontin) and topiramate (Topamax)

See your doctor if you have frequent or severe headaches, or if they get in the way of your life.

Call 911 for a headache that is sudden and severe or also makes your face droop, causes weakness or numbness, or makes it hard to talk, see, or think.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on November 7, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

Cleveland Clinic: “Rebound Headaches.”

Harvard Health Publications: “4 ways to tame tension headaches.”

Mount Sinai Hospital: “Tension Headache.”

National Headaches Foundation: “Tension-Type Headache.”

President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition.”

University of California Berkeley: “Headaches.”

University of Michigan: “When Should You See a Doctor for Headache or Migraines?”

University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority: “Headaches: Should I Take Prescription Medicine for Tension Headaches?”

National Stroke Association: “Act FAST.”

UpToDate: "Tension-type headache in adults: Preventive treatment."

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