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Tension headache relief

Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Dr Roger HendersonReviewed on 13.10.2023 | 8 minutes read
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A tension headache is the most common type and feels like a tight band has been wrapped around your forehead, causing a constant ache to the sides of the head. Your neck or shoulders might feel tight and tender and a dull ache or pressure can build up behind the eyes.

People call it a stress headache for good reason – it comes at the busiest or most stressful times. Other common triggers for tension headaches are excessive noise or bright sunlight, poor posture, a deterioration in eyesight or dehydration. While frustrating, for most people it’s mild enough for them to be able to continue with everyday activities.

Most describe tension headaches as mild and short-lived. Many feel better after a sleep or a warm bath, and tension headaches usually respond well to simple painkillers. Let's talk you through how to beat a tension headache with both medicated and drug-free remedies.

Doctor’s advice

Treatments: home and drug-free

Once we’ve understood the causes of a tension headache, we can build up an artillery of treatments to either stop them once they’ve arrived, or prevent them from happening in the first place. If your tension headache is mild, you may prefer to stick to natural remedies and avoid medication. Similarly, these suggestions can be used alongside medication to maximise benefits, with no added risk to you.

Hydration

Dehydration can cause or worsen a tension headache, so it’s important to keep fluid levels topped up, especially if exercising or in hot weather. If you think conditions are causing you to lose lots of fluid, it may help to top up with oral rehydration salts to replace the lost electrolytes, like sodium, alongside sweat.

Cold pack

A cold pack, such as a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a tea towel, can help relieve a headache if applied to the point of pain in the head, such as the temple. Don’t exceed 20 minutes with this technique, or you might start to compromise circulation to the skin.

Warm compress

It’s trial and error, but some prefer a warm compress or heat pack vs a cold pack. This is especially effective during a tension headache if applied to the neck or back of the head, and can be a hot water bottle (only leave it on for 20 minutes at a time, or you risk getting a rash) or a wheat bag that you can heat in the microwave.

If you don’t have a compress to hand, some find that an ointment that generates a feeling of heat, such as Tiger Balm, helps to alleviate pain when applied to the temples, and some become primed to the distinctive smell as a healing aid even before it’s applied, which magnifies the healing power by using positive aromatic memories.

Magnesium

Some studies have suggested magnesium supplements can help prevent or end a tension headache. An article in the Nutrients journal in 2020 looked at published evidence in magnesium studies, and found it may be beneficial for some with moderate tension headaches, if the sufferers are deficient for any reason, but they concluded that more research is needed. So it may not work for everyone, but given that standard supplements are relatively safe and well-tolerated, it might be worth trying this.

Exercise

Here at Healthwords, we are big activity fans, helping mind and body perform at their best. With tension headaches, any exercise – walking, running, swimming, cycling – will help blood flow to the muscles and brain to help overall. Any exercise session – defined as where you get out of breath and your heart rate goes up for at least 30 minutes – will release a wave of feel-good endorphins, which help to counteract stress. Core strengthening, weight training and conditioning can also help to improve posture and make the spine more healthy, hopefully at the same time releasing neck muscles and reducing tension build-up.

Stress

Yoga or pilates falls into our exercise category, building up the core muscles that include the paraspinal muscles, alongside the spine, and stretching out muscles so they feel more free. Stress is one of the biggest underlying factors in tension headaches, and it’s important to build in stress reduction techniques to your every day – you will know what’s best for you, but some ideas include meditation or mindfulness, listening to music, having a dance to disco around your kitchen or a good laugh with friends or family.

Sleep

Sleeping well is hugely important to regulating energy, emotions and stress levels, as well as physical rest. Routine is key, maintaining similar hours of bedtime and waking, regardless of weekday or weekend, and if you need to catch up, your body much prefers an earlier bedtime to a lie-in in the morning.

Mouth guard

It’s really common for people to grind their teeth in their sleep, especially if restless or stressed, and your dentist may see signs of this. This can add to a tension headache and jaw or neck muscle tension. If you think this applies to you, you can buy a simple mouth guard to wear at night, or your dentist can tailor-make one, protecting your teeth, aiding sleep and hopefully preventing headaches.

Caffeine

There’s evidence that caffeine – found in tea, coffee, cola and caffeinated energy drinks – may help chase a tension headache away. As doctors, we even advise it after a certain procedure on the spine that can bring on headaches (a lumbar puncture). But it’s a little of what you fancy – if you are a regular caffeine user, your body becomes reliant on it, and you can get a caffeine withdrawal headache if you cut out your daily dose.

Peppermint

Some find a peppermint tea can help to relax and unwind, but a team of German researchers in 2016 found that peppermint oil rubbed into neck muscles may also help them to relax and alleviate pain. Some enjoy the cooling sensation of menthol when rubbed into the temples, and it’s possible that the aroma of peppermint tea has a similar effect.

Anti-glare computer screen and lighting

If you’re spending hours at your computer like WFH, the flickering light of the screen may be contributing to headaches, along with the poor posture we’re all guilty of. So address your work desk setup to make sure you’re at maximum comfort while maintaining a good and supported posture, and consider adding an anti-glare device to reduce flicker from the screen. Try include stretches in daily routine. Swap out any flickering fluorescent strip lighting, while you’re at it, and consider exchanging harsh white-blue spectrum lights with soft, warm white lights, which are more restful to the eye.

What medications should I use to relieve a tension headache?

You don’t usually need to see your doctor for the management of a tension headache. Instead, you can buy medications from your pharmacy. Paracetamol or ibuprofen can be very effective either on their own or in combination. Codeine or other opioid painkillers are not usually recommended.

For the treatment of headaches, painkillers should only be used for a short period of time.

This is because taking painkillers over a long period (usually 10 days or more) may conversely lead to medication-overuse headaches developing. This happens when your body gets used to the painkiller and when you stop, the headache returns or gets worse.

Pharmacist recommended products

Tension Headache Health Kit
Effective relief for
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Replenish electrolytes
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Restore fluid balance
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Prevents dehydration
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Herbal pain relief
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Locally acting massage balm
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Unique herbal blend
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Invigorating scent
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Warming pain relief
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Relax tense neck & shoulder muscles
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Dual action pain relief
More info
£23.26
Recommended by healthwords.ai pharmacist
Why this Health Kit

Tension headaches are usually described as mild and last from 30 minutes to a few hours. However, it can feel different when you experience one for yourself, bringing on pain and tenderness in the head, neck and shoulders, and it feels difficult to concentrate on ordinary tasks. While it’s comforting to think it will go away eventually, it's useful to find certain medications that can help.

This Health Kit aims to:

  • Reduce headache and neck and shoulder pain

  • Provide soothing relief of forehead, temples, and neck muscles with either heat or cold.

  • Restore electrolyte and fluid balance to help you recover.

Nuromol contains two active ingredients: ibuprofen and paracetamol. Ibuprofen is an anti-inflammatory pain reliever from a group of medicines known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Paracetamol is another type of pain reliever that works differently from ibuprofen to relieve pain. This is a powerful combination of two active ingredients in the same tablet is very effective for many kinds of pain, including tension headaches, and gets to work from the inside out.

When you are stressed, tired, overworked or have poor posture, your neck and shoulders carry the strain, and this can bring on tension headaches. Inspired by centuries of Chinese wisdom and containing a unique blend of herbal ingredients, Tiger Balm White Ointment is a proven, safe and effective herbal ointment for treating tension headaches. It targets aching and painful areas to soothe muscles and ease away any headache. Each little jar is a powerful drug-free treatment, and with use over time, the distinctive smell can prompt aromatic memories that help to heal before you’ve even put it on.

Deep Heat Pain Relief Patches uses penetrating heat to relax stiff and aching neck and shoulder muscles that have got knotted up with tension. Healthcare professionals recognise and recommend heat therapy for muscular pain and stiffness. Therapeutic heat from the patch delivers target pain relief right where you need it, working from the outside in, while pain relief medications deliver relief from the inside.

O.R.S. Hydration tablets can help replenish fluid and electrolytes, reversing any dehydration or electrolyte imbalance that may have caused your tension headache. The lemon flavour also contains vitamin B2 (riboflavin), which can help boost energy levels.

Using the products in this Health Kit together, with different modes of action, can help alleviate the pain and discomfort of tension headaches and rebalance electrolyte and fluid balance, helping you to get on with your day.

Note: Always read the information leaflets and specific product information before purchasing, as some products may not be suitable for all patients. This may be especially true if you take any other medicines or suffer from other medical conditions. If you are unsure about anything, please speak to your local pharmacist, doctor, or another qualified health practitioner.

How can I prevent tension headaches?

If you experience frequent tension-type headaches, you may wish to keep a diary to try to identify what could be triggering them. This can help you identify what your triggers are and help you make changes to avoid them.

Regular exercise and relaxation are also important measures to help reduce stress and tension that may be causing headaches.

Maintaining good posture and ensuring you're well-rested and hydrated are always good things to keep your body working well.

In some cases, your doctor may recommend acupuncture sessions over a 5-8 week period and sometimes with medications such as amitriptyline.

When should I see my doctor?

Most people experience headaches from time to time, and they are rarely a sign of something serious. However, there are certain symptoms and signs that can alert us to underlying causes that may need further examination and investigation. You should see a doctor urgently if you have any of the following:

  • a new headache that feels different in location or intensity to your usual headache, especially for those over 50
  • a new headache that came on suddenly and feels like the worse pain you’ve ever experienced
  • a headache with sudden loss of vision or you have persistent visual changes despite a recent eyesight test
  • a headache with any persistent weakness or numbness in your arms or legs or lack of balance
  • a headache with fever, vomiting, neck stiffness, drowsiness or rash
  • a headache with a new seizure or collapse
  • a headache with any drowsiness or altered consciousness, especially if household members have the same
  • a headache with any change to thinking or behaviour, or any change in personality
  • a headache following any type of head injury, even if days later (or up to 3 months), but persistent and worsening
  • a headache in your final trimester of pregnancy or up to 6 weeks after birth, especially with known high blood pressure or ankle swelling
  • a headache triggered by coughing, sneezing, bending or exertion

Other reasons to visit your doctor are if you're suffering headaches on a regular basis and they are having a significant impact on work, studies or family life, if you are requiring pain relief for headaches at least 5 times a week, most weeks, if you experience visual symptoms such as aura for the first time, or you have a painful red and watery eye without diagnosis.

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Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed on 13.10.2023
EmailFacebookPinterestTwitter