How To Treat Your Nagging Tension Headaches

Medicines to Treat Your Tension Headache. Tom Merton/Getty Images

Most people do not see their doctor for a  tension headache. That rubber-band-around-the-head sensation is common and usually treated with simple measures like sleep, water, or an over-the-counter medication.

Let's take a closer look at medical therapies for tension headaches – including a medication that may be prescribed by your doctor to help prevent these nagging headaches.

Over-the-Counter Medications

A number of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAIDs) medications are helpful for treating a tension headache like:

  • Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
  • Naproxen Sodium (Aleve)
  • Ketorolac (Toradol)
  • Diclofenac potassium
  • Aspirin (Bayer)

Some of these can be taken over-the-counter whereas others require a visit to your doctor for a prescription. Remember, NSAIDs have many potential side effects and should be avoided by some people, especially those with a history of stomach bleeding, kidney disease, and/or heart disease. Always confer with your doctor before taking any medication to make sure it's safe.

Acetaminophen (Tylenol) can also alleviate a tension headache. So, which one – acetaminophen or an NSAID – is better for a tension headache? Please read Advil or Tylenol? to find out.

Alternative Therapies

Alternative therapies for tension headaches include:

  • physical therapy
  • relaxation therapy
  • self-hypnosis
  • EMG biofeedback
  • cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)

The goal of physical therapy is to improve posture and provide muscle relaxation through the use of hot and cold packs, ultrasound, massage, and home exercise. One study in Cephalagia found that physical therapy led to a decent reduction in number of headaches per month, especially for those with chronic tension headaches.

Relaxation, EMG biofeedback, self-hypnosis, and CBT are psychological therapies. In EMG biofeedback, people are taught to reduce muscle tension while viewing or hearing a display of electrical activity of the muscles in their face, neck, or shoulders. In CBT, people are trained to reduce stressful thoughts that trigger or irritate tension headaches.

Preventing Tension Headaches

Of course, evading a tension headache in the first place through proper self-care and trigger avoidance is always a safe and simple bet. Here are 5 ways to avoid tension headaches. But, if you continue to get tension headaches, then your doctor may recommend a preventive medication.

Amitriptyline (Elavil) – a tricyclic antidepressant – has been found in a number of studies to be beneficial in preventing tension headaches, especially people who have chronic tension headaches. The good news is that for some people taking amitriptyline, the medication can be slowly tapered down and then stopped after six months of use – and people remain headache free. For others, their headaches return and so amitriptyline may be needed long term.

If you start amitriptyline, please speak carefully with your headache specialist and primary care doctor about the side effects which include dry mouth, weight gain, and sleepiness. More potentially serious side effects include:

What To Watch Out For

One of the risks of self-treating your run of the mill tension headache is to overuse medications. This can lead to the development of medication overuse headaches. Remember, be cautious and always speak with your doctor first before taking any medication. It's important to also speak with your doctor if your headaches feel different or are becoming more frequent.

DISCLAIMER: The information in this site is for educational purposes only. It should not be used as a substitute for personal care by a licensed physician. Please see your doctor for diagnosis and treatment of any concerning symptoms or medical condition.

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Article Sources

  • Chowdhury D. Tension type headache. Ann Indian Acad Neurol. 2012 Aug; 15(Suppl 1): S83–S88.
  • Millea PJ & Brodie JJ. Tension-Type Headache. Am Fam Physician. 2002 Sep 1;66(5):797-805.
  • Torelli P, Jensen R, Olesen J. Physiotherapy for tension-type headache: A controlled study. Cephalalgia. 2004;24:29–36.