Expert Advice

How do I fix a tension headache?

A tension headache is characterized by dull, non-pulsating pain on both sides of the head, and is less severe and debilitating than a migraine.

How do I fix a tension headache?
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A tension headache is characterized by dull, non-pulsating pain on both sides of the head, and is less severe and debilitating than a migraine.
TREATMENT: I give my patients a stress test, check their sleep habits, and run blood tests. I might also order a brain scan or MRI to check for brain tumors or disorders, and ask them to avoid smoke, strong fragrances, and
foods that contain sugar or MSG to help determine what’s causing the headaches. For episodic headaches (fewer than 15 a month), I treat with aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen. For chronic cases, I may even prescribe antidepressants.
SELF-HELP: Get seven hours of sleep at night and do some physical activity at least 20 to 30 minutes five days a week. Consider biofeedback or meditation. See National Headache Foundation ( for more.
Alexander Mauskop, M.D., author of What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Migraines (Grand Central, 2001)

The stress that causes a tension headache stems from an imbalance in your nervous system between your fight-or flight functions and your resting functions with fight-or-flight winning out.
TREATMENT: I would prescribe high energy yoga with Sun Salutations, back bends, or handstands. From there, I’d check your posture: If your head is too far forward of your spinal column, I’d recommend neck stretches. To find a therapist near you, check with the International Association of Yoga Therapists (
SELF-HELP: Try simple poses like Downward Facing Dog or Seated Twists at least ten minutes a day. Or, try this: Sit in a chair facing a table and place your forearms on the table with your arms crossed. Bend forward and rest your forehead on your wrists and gently move the flesh between your eyebrows in the direction of your nose. Rest in the pose for five minutes.
Timothy McCall, M.D., author of Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing (Bantam, 2007)

Muscle tightness in the head, neck, and shoulders can cause a tension headache. Massage can loosen the muscles and release the tension.
TREATMENT: I would ask about your daily activities to see if there is a pattern to your headaches. Then I’d inspect your posture to see if you hold your head forward and stick your chin out, or if your shoulders are hunched. Next, I’d feel your muscles to check if they’re tight or soft, warm or cold, and how they relate to one another. Then I’d create a treatment plan, which would include massaging the face, jaw, neck, and shoulders.
SELF-HELP: Take breaks from your work every 30 minutes. Do some light stretching of your neck and shoulders. For a tension headache that stems from a stiff neck, apply a heating pad or hot towel for 15 to 20 minutes.
Christy Cale, licensed massage practitioner and education program manager at Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals in Evergreen, Colo.