How can you relieve a tension headache?
It usually responds to over-the-counter medicines like ibuprofen, aspirin, or Tylenol, as well as combined analgesics that contain caffeine. Just be careful not to use over-the-counter drugs more than two to three days a week regularly, because that could lead to more frequent headaches. For some the pain is mild enough that simple rest or a cup of coffee is enough.
For chronic tension-type headache, daily preventative medications may be prescribed. Some forms of antidepressants and antiseizure drugs, as well as biofeedback, have been shown to work well to reduce headache frequency. Speak with your doctor about what’s right for you.
What is biofeedback, and what other alternative therapies are available?
Biofeedback is a type of mind-body therapy that trains you to control certain body functions like your muscle tension, body temperature, or heart rate so that you can get into a state of relaxation. It’s one of the best treatments for a tension headache. Other complementary therapies like massage, physical therapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy can help you relax and ease the tension around the neck and shoulders.
Managing stress can also help with prevention. Stretching during the day, not overusing caffeine, getting enough sleep, eating regularly, working toward work/life balance — all of these habits can help.
When should you worry about a headache?
Any headache that gets progressively worse should be checked out by your primary caregiver. Also, if you’re 50 or older and start having headaches for no apparent reason, that’s a red flag — it could represent an underlying disorder.
Other warning signs that warrant contacting your doctor:
- You’ve had a headache for several days and it’s not going away
- Your headache starts to feel different or gets stronger (for example, a sudden explosive headache that feels like a thunderclap)
- Your headache keeps waking you up in the morning
- You experience new symptoms such as a fever or stiff neck
Call 911 and get immediate medical attention if you have stroke-like symptoms with your headache, such as:
- Blurred vision
- Sudden numbness in your face, arm, or leg, particularly on one side of your body
- Loss of balance or inability to walk
- Slurred speech or a sudden inability to speak
- Sudden confusion
The bottom line: If your headaches are becoming more frequent, they aren’t going away, or you’re developing other symptoms, reach out to your doctor.
Dr. Susan W. Broner is an assistant attending neurologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. She is also the medical director of the Weill Cornell Medicine Headache Program and an assistant professor of clinical neurology at Weill Cornell Medicine.