Types Of Headaches Tension Headaches Treatment

Stress headaches aren’t as debilitating as migraine or cluster headaches, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t make life miserable. When you have a stress headache you want relief, and you want it fast (many a painkiller advertisement is build on that need). Tension headache relief may involve over the counter analgesics, prescription medications, stress reduction, and home remedies.

Stress Headaches and Over the Counter Medications

Over the counter analgesics, or painkillers, are the first tension headache relief considered by many stress headache sufferers. Medications such as aspirin, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen are readily available, and commonly used to provide headache relief.

Aspirin, ibuprofen, and other over the counter medication should be used sparingly for tension headache relief. Over-use of most analgesics for stress headaches can lower the efficiency of the medication over time, and cause painful chronic rebound headaches. In addition, long-term use of over the counter medications, such as aspirin, can cause serious side effects, such as abdominal pain, intestinal bleeding, and stomach ulcers.

The best rule for analgesic tension headache relief is to use painkillers only when necessary, and then only take the minimum dose required to treat the stress headache. Never take over the counter medication as preventive medicine without first consulting your doctor. Many tension headache medications, both prescription and non-prescription, are not safe to take while pregnant or breastfeeding.

Children and Tension Headache Relief

Check with a medical professional before treating a child’s stress headache with over the counter tension headache treatments. High doses or extended use of nonprescription painkillers can seriously harm a child; acetaminophen can cause extensive liver damage in children if overused.

Aspirin, in any amount, should not be administered to children younger than sixteen years of age for any purpose, including tension headache relief. Aspirin use in children has been linked to Reye’s syndrome. Reye’s syndrome is a rare but often fatal condition that damages all body organs, but especially affects the brain and liver.

Stress Headaches and Prescription Drugs

Chronic or severe stress headaches may not respond to over the counter medications. If so, doctors may prescribe tricyclic antidepressants for tension headache relief. Tricyclic antidepressants such as amitriptyline and nortriptyline have an analgesic effect that can relieve stress headache symptoms. If stress headaches are caused by depression, tricyclic antidepressants provide both depression and tension headache treatment (the medication can treat some cases of stress headache symptoms even if the patient is not depressed).

In addition to tricyclic antidepressants, other antidepressant drugs are sometimes prescribed for tension headache relief, but none have proven as effective for stress headache relief as the tricyclics.

Seizure medication may also be prescribed in tension headache treatment, including the anticonvulsants divalproex and gabapentin. They sometimes provide stress headache relief. If chronic tension headache treatment is required, prescriptions must be chosen carefully to avoid habit-forming medications.

Stress Headache Home Remedies: At-Home Tension Headache Relief

Medication isn’t the only tension headache relief available: Often simple at-home remedies provide the best stress headache relief. Hot compresses can relax tense neck and shoulder muscles helping to relieve pain. An ice pack wrapped in a towel and applied to the forehead often provides fast stress headache relief. Hot showers and baths also relax tense muscles and relieve stress.

If stress headaches are triggered by restless sleep, tension headache relief may be as simple as switching to a different type of pillow. Sleeping in a better position may also relieve stress headaches. Sleep itself is often one of the most successful stress headache treatments, as many people do not get enough rest.

Prevention: The Best Tension Headache Relief

Not getting a stress headache in the first place is, of course, the best tension headache relief strategy. Here are a few strategies to lower your chance of developing stress headaches:

Good Posture: Maintaining good posture prevents muscle tension and tension-type headaches. Pay attention to how you stand, sit, drive, and sleep.

Stretch Breaks: Take regular breaks throughout the day to gently stretch your neck and shoulder muscles. This is especially important if work demands that you spend long hours typing or performing computer work. During long drives schedule roadside stops to stretch muscles and relieve tension.

Exercise: Regular exercise provides effective tension headache relief, as exercise reduces stress hormone levels and relaxes tense muscles. Consult your doctor before starting an exercise plan to combat stress headaches though; some people find physical exertion can actually trigger a tension headache.

Stress Reduction: Stress headaches caused by emotional stress and muscle tension can be treated by learning stress reduction techniques. Relaxation therapy, yoga, massage, medication, and breathing exercises can all reduce stress and provide effective tension headache relief.

Keep a Stress Headache Diary: Identifying the events that trigger stress headaches can help you take charge of your own tension headache relief. Once stress headache triggers are identified, they can be avoided or modified to lessen the chance of tension headaches.

One way to identify stress headache triggers is to keep a tension headache diary. In the diary, note when headaches occur, how long they last, and any circumstances that lead up to the headache. Also note which tension headache treatment options work, what you ate, and any stress or unusual events that may have triggered the headache. If the same triggers consistently set off stress headaches, your tension headache diary will help you to identify patterns.


American Academy of Family Physicians. (nd). Headaches. AAFP flowchart.

American Council for Headache Education. (updated 2002). Headache medicines: Which one is right for you?

Mayo Foundation of Medical Education and Research. (2003). Tension-type headache.

National Headache Foundation. (nd). Tension-type headache.

National Library of Medicine. (updated 2002). Tension headache. MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.