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Treatment. Tension Headache

By Editorial Team (Y)
January 31, 2022
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Tension headache treatment

Sometimes people who experience tension headaches come up with treatments for tension headaches themselves instead of seeking medical attention. The problem with this is, if they are using over-the-counter pain medications too frequently (three or more times per week), they may get even more tension headaches that are more difficult to treat.

Tension headache medications

Both prescription medications and over-the-counter pain pills are tension headache treatments. They include:

  • Analgesics: Analgesics relieve pain. Non-prescription pain medications, which are available over-the-counter, are usually tried first. They include aspirin, naproxen (Aleve), and ibuprofen (Motrin IB, Advil, and others). Analgesics that require a prescription for tension headache treatment include indomethacin (Indocin) and naproxen (Naprosyn).
  • Combination medications: These tension headache medications contain acetaminophen or aspirin, or sometimes both, in combination with caffeine or a medication that causes sedation, in one pill. These combinations of drugs can often be more beneficial for tension headache treatment than pain relievers that only have one ingredient. Many of these combination drugs are available without a prescription.
  • Triptans and narcotics: People who have both episodic tension headaches and migraines may experience relief from both types of headaches by using a triptan medication. Narcotics are not routinely used as a treatment for tension headaches due to their risk for addiction and also due to their side effects.

Preventive medications for tension headaches

Sometimes a patient has chronic or frequent tension headaches that are not easily relieved by analgesics and treatments for tension headaches therapies like biofeedback or relaxation. In these cases, a physician may recommend other treatment methods, such as medications, to reduce the severity and the frequency of the tension headaches. These drug treatments for tension headaches may include:

  • Tricyclic antidepressants: This type of treatment is most often used to prevent tension headaches. Examples of tricyclic antidepressants include amitriptyline (Elavil) and nortriptyline (Pamelor). Potential side effects of tricyclic antidepressants include dry mouth, drowsiness, and weight gain.
  • Other antidepressants: Other antidepressants have also been noted to help prevent the frequency and severity of tension headaches. Such medications for tension headaches include venlafaxine (Effexor XR) and mirtazapine (Remeron).
  • Muscle relaxants and anticonvulsants: Muscle relaxants and anticonvulsants may also help treat tension headaches.

These preventive medications for tension headaches do not work right away. They may require several weeks or a month to reach a level in your body that is effective as a treatment for tension headaches. Your physician will closely monitor your condition and response to the medication. Remember that using pain medications too frequently can lead to more tension headaches or may interfere with the preventive treatments.

Tension headache prevention

Regular exercise is one of the best ways to reduce stress and help with tension headaches prevention. Other techniques such as relaxation therapy and biofeedback training are also effective.

  • Biofeedback training. This method can help reduce the pain of tension headaches by teaching you how to control specific body responses. You are given feedback through devices that monitor body functions like blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension during a session. You can then learn how to reduce the tension in your muscles and decrease your breathing and heart rate yourself to relieve a tension headache.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy. This involves talking with a therapist and learning ways to manage stress. This can help decrease the severity and frequency of your tension headaches.
  • Other relaxation techniques. This can include anything that helps you relax. For example, meditation, yoga, progressive muscle relaxation, and deep breathing. Relaxation techniques are taught in classes, or you can learn them at home using tapes, books, or the internet to help prevent tension headaches.

Combining medications with stress reduction techniques may be more beneficial than any therapy is alone in helping to reduce tension headaches.

A healthy lifestyle may also help as a treatment and prevention of tension headaches.

  • Avoid nicotine in any form, including second-hand smoke
  • Drink water. At least eight glasses per day to help reduce tension headaches.
  • Get 7-8 hours of sleep at night to help reduce tension headaches
  • To reduce tension headaches, eat a healthy diet on a regular schedule
  • Limit your intake of caffeine, alcohol, and sugar to help reduce tension headaches
  • Exercise regularly

Useful Advice

Sometimes all you need to treat tension headaches is something to help you relax, such as a short rest, a long, hot bath or shower, or cooling ice packs. There are many ways to decrease the frequency, duration, and severity of tension headaches without taking medicine. Consider trying the following for tension headache treatment:

  • Control the stress in your life: Be intentional about setting aside time each day to relax, even if it is only five or ten minutes. Make those minutes all yours. If you are trapped in a tense situation, take a time-out. Step back. Consider letting it go. Another way to decrease stress and reduce tension headaches is to plan ahead and stay organized. Less chaos means less stress.
  • Heat up or cool down: If sore muscles contribute to your tension headache, use ice or heat, whichever feels better, to soothe and relax them. For heat, try a hot bath or shower or use a heating pad (set on low), a heated towel, or a warm compress. For cold, cover an ice pack, a small baggie of ice, or a bag of frozen vegetables with a pillowcase to protect your skin. This may help a tension headache.
  • Watch your posture: When you do not use good posture, your muscles can get tense and tight and trigger a tension headache. When you are standing, keep your head level and your shoulders back. Pull in your abdomen and tuck in your buttocks. When you are sitting, keep your thighs parallel to the floor and keep your head up, not slumping forward.

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