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updated August 18, 2012

Tension-type headaches: Self-care measures for relief

  • Frequent headaches can interfere with your daily life. But healthy lifestyle choices can help you head off the pain. Start with the basics, including diet, exercise and relaxation.
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( Nearly everyone experiences occasional tension-type headaches. But frequent tension-type headaches can interfere with your daily life. Aside from over-the-counter or prescription medication, do you wonder what else you can do to stop the pain? The answer may be as simple as taking good care of yourself.

Make healthy lifestyle choices

The same lifestyle choices that promote good health may reduce the frequency and severity of your tension-type headaches. Consider the basics:

  • Eat healthy foods. Don't skip meals, especially breakfast, and stay hydrated with plenty of water daily.
  • Exercise regularly. During physical activity, your body releases certain chemicals that block pain signals to your brain. If your doctor agrees, choose any exercise you enjoy. Walking, swimming and cycling are often good choices. But it's important to start slowly. Exercising too vigorously can trigger some types of headaches.
  • Get enough sleep. Wake up and go to bed at the same time every day — even on weekends. Relax before you go to bed. If you don't fall asleep within 15 minutes, get up and read or do another quiet activity until you become drowsy. Keep in mind that medications that contain caffeine or other stimulants, including some headache medications, may interfere with sleep.
  • Avoid excess caffeine. Sometimes caffeine helps curb headaches. In fact, many headache medications contain caffeine. But heavy daily caffeine use — more than 200 milligrams of caffeine a day (about two regular cups of coffee) — can cause headaches and irritability.
  • Quit smoking. Cigarette smoke contains carbon monoxide, a known headache trigger, and nicotine has been shown to interfere with the liver's ability to break down headache medication. Aside from these drawbacks, smoking cessation has many other well-documented health benefits that contribute to your overall health.
Keep stress under control

Stress and tension-type headaches often go hand in hand. To reduce stress, try these simple tips:

  • Simplify your life. Rather than looking for ways to squeeze more activities or chores into the day, find a way to leave some things out.
  • Manage your time wisely. Update your to-do list every day — both at work and at home. Delegate what you can, and divide large projects into manageable chunks.
  • Take a break. If you feel overwhelmed, a few slow stretches or a quick walk may renew your energy for the task at hand.
  • Adjust your attitude. Stay positive. If you find yourself thinking, "This can't be done," switch gears. Think instead, "This will be tough. But I can make it work."
  • Let go. Don't worry about things you can't control.
Ease muscle tension

Muscle tension can trigger tension-type headaches. If you're feeling tense, apply heat or ice to soothe sore neck and shoulder muscles. Use a heating pad set on low, a hot water bottle, a warm compress or a hot towel. A hot bath or shower may help, too. If you'd rather use ice, wrap the ice pack in a cloth to protect your skin.

Massage also can relieve muscle tension — and sometimes headache pain. Gently massage your temples, scalp, neck and shoulders with your fingertips. Or ask someone else to do the honors.


Take time to unwind every day. Try this deep-breathing exercise:

  • Lie down on your back or sit comfortably with your feet flat on the floor and your hands in your lap.
  • Imagine yourself in a peaceful place, perhaps a beach or quiet forest. Keep this scene in your mind.
  • Focus on inhaling and exhaling slowly and deeply for 10 minutes or more.
  • When you're done, sit quietly for a minute or two.

Try to practice these breathing exercises or another form of relaxation every day.

Keep a headache diary

A diary may help you determine what triggers your tension-type headaches. Note when your headaches start, what you were doing at the time, how long they last and what, if anything, provides relief. With the help of a headache diary, you may begin to notice patterns in your daily life that may contribute to your tension-type headaches. You may also note the benefits of healthy lifestyle changes.

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