Millions of people suffer from chronic, lingering headaches that can develop almost daily — yet the causes of the most common so-called “tension headache” are not well-understood.
For many people, chronic tension headaches can really disturb their quality of life, immediately putting them in a bad mood, making it hard to get good sleep and causing trouble when trying to concentrate at work. Popping pain-killing medications might work to give you some immediate relief, but they don’t address the root problem of headaches or prevent them from happening yet again.
Luckily, there are some effective natural headache remedies that can help you find lasting relief. So let’s look at how you can determine if you have a tension headache and how relieve tension headaches when they do occur.
What Is a Tension Headache?
Tension headaches, which can feel like uncomfortable tightness or pressure around the entire head, are the most common type of headache adults experience. In fact, up to 80 percent of the adult U.S. population suffers from at least occasional tension headaches, with around 3 percent experiencing chronic daily tension headaches.
There is more than one type of tension headache, so doctors usually split tension headaches into two main divided categories that describe how often they occur: either episodic headaches (which happen now and then) or chronic headaches (which are experienced much more often).
Episodic tension headaches tend to occur fewer than 15 days of the month (for example, every other day or a few times per week), while in contrast, chronic tension headaches can happen much more often — for some people even nearly every day. Episodic headaches usually last for about 30 minutes to a few hours, but at times they can linger for as long as one week.
Chronic tension headaches usually last at least several hours and are more likely to be continuous, causing nagging pain that won’t seem to quit. Doctors consider someone to suffer from chronic headaches if more days than not he or she deals with head pain. It’s also possible to start off having only episodic tension headaches now and then, but soon notice that they become more frequent and chronic in nature.
Signs that you’re experiencing a tension headache can include:
- Dull, aching head pain (it can be felt as if there’s a tight strap around the head)
- Lots of pressure and tightness across the forehead
- Muscle aches or pains on the sides and back of your head, including running down your neck
- Sensitivity to loud noises
- Tenderness when you touch your hair line, scalp, neck and shoulders
People who are most at risk for dealing with tension headaches include:
- anyone who is under a lot of chronic stress (such as working a high-pressure job, having financial troubles or dealing with emotional trauma)
- people who eat a pro-inflammatory diet, including one with a lot of packaged foods high in salt, sugar, chemicals and preservatives
- being a woman (some studies find that more woman than men experience headaches)
- being middle-aged (while anyone can suffer from headaches, there’s evidence that tension headaches seem to peak when people are in their 30s or 40s, possibly due to growing stress levels and less physical activity)
- those who clench their jaw when they sleep or who have sleep apnea (which can trigger morning headaches)
- missing meals and dealing with blood sugar fluctuations
- having depression or anxiety
- getting too little sleep
- sitting for many hours of the day and not moving enough
By and large the most common trigger for a tension headache is stress. This is why it’s crucial to learn how to manage stress in your life before it can start to negatively impact your health — not to mention your quality of sleep, motivation, dietary choices and relationships. Some people might notice that certain conditions make them more likely to develop a tension headache, such as a bad week at work, sitting for many hours and working on a computer, traveling, or being sleep-deprived. When factors like the weather, light or loud noise seem to trigger headaches, it’s still possible that stress is the underlying cause that make someone more susceptible to a headache.
There are also other reasons beyond stress that a tension headache can form, although the exact mechanism of how headaches develop still isn’t totally understood. The belief used to be that tension headaches resulted from certain muscle contractions in the head, face, neck and scalp (in fact, previously tension headaches were called muscle contraction headaches). But today we know that these contractions are likely tied to emotional problems and stress. Anxiety or stress can cause the muscles to tighten up and constrict, which affects signals being sent from our nerves.
It’s also possible that people who experience chronic tension headaches are predisposed to pain and might have a heightened sensitivity to both bodily pain sensations and stress. For example, some people experience more muscle tenderness than others, which is one common symptom of tension headaches.
Beating tension headaches for good usually requires a combination of lifestyle changes, adopting some new healthy habits, and letting go off things like anger, high amounts of stress or a poor diet that can all trigger pain. While you might have relied on painkillers or other medications in the past, there are plenty of drug-free, totally natural treatments that can reduce how often and how intensely you experience headaches.
1. Manage Your Stress
Stress causes changes in your hormones that might make you more prone to pain and discomfort. Plus, the more stressed you are, the harder you might find it to exercise, eat a healthy diet and get good sleep — which are all important for preventing headaches. Because stress is the No. 1 trigger for tension headaches — which is why a tension headache is also known as a stress headache — most people need to find various ways to lower the impact of stress on their lives in order for their headache symptoms to improve.
Do whatever you can to relieve stress in ways that work for you. Try reading something inspiring, using soothing essential oils for headaches, doing breathing exercises, meditating, praying or spending time outdoors. Find ways to allow more time to simply relax and do things that make you happy.
One effective way to reduce stress while also lowering pain? Try taking a hot bath with essential oils for headaches (like lavender, rose or peppermint) or laying down while applying ice packs to your neck and shoulders. For many people, there’s nothing like a long, hot shower to relieve the day’s tension before bed.
2. Improve Your Diet
Using stress-reducing practices in combination with a healthier lifestyle overall is your best bet for preventing headaches. An important factor to consider is your diet. Are you eating plenty of anti-inflammatory foods that support energy levels and your ability to cope with stress, or are you relying on the quick burst of energy that sugar, caffeine and refined goods can temporarily provide? Some of the ways you can lower the odds of developing headaches include:
- staying hydrated and drinking enough water throughout the day
- skipping sugary snacks that lead to blood sugar fluctuations
- avoiding smoking or drinking too much alcohol
- limiting the amount of caffeine you drink and not drinking caffeine too close to bedtime when it can cause you to get bad sleep (sleep is very important for pain management)
- eating every few hours to keep blood sugar levels stable, prevent fatigue and lower the tendency to deal with anxiety
Stick to a healing diet filled with foods that naturally relax muscles and help you deal with stress. Some of the best foods for preventing headaches include:
- clean sources protein to normalize blood sugar — cage-free eggs, wild fish, grass-fed meat or raw dairy (choose unprocessed meat that’s preferably organic to avoid additives that can trigger allergies or headaches)
- foods high in fiber — vegetables, fruits, ancient grains, nuts and seeds all contribute fiber to your diet, which reduces constipation that’s linked to headaches
- healthy fats to reduce inflammation and prevent blood sugar dips — nuts, seeds, coconut oil or olive oil, avocado, and wild-caught fish help you digest important nutrients and are important for brain function and hormonal balance
- foods high in magnesium and electrolytes — green leafy vegetables, sweet potatoes, melon and bananas are some good sources of magnesium, which relaxes muscles
3. Avoid These Trigger Foods
Wondering what foods might contribute to your headaches? One study examined 684 patients who suffered from both migraine and tension headaches. Here’s how it broke down in terms of headache triggers:
- 23 percent missed a meal
- 37 percent had dietary triggers
- the most common dietary triggers were coffee (20 percent), chocolate (7.5 percent) and foods rich in MSG (5.6 percent) — this was more the case with migraine than tension headaches
These foods and drinks trigger headaches, so limit them to help prevent head pain:
- too much sugar — can cause hormonal changes and put pressure on the adrenal glands, making you feel stressed and “wired but tired”
- common food allergies — sensitivities and allergies like gluten, cows dairy, peanuts, eggs, soy and shellfish can trigger constipation, muscle stiffness (like a stiff neck) and headaches
- alcohol — causes changes to blood flow in the brain and dehydration, which alters electrolyte levels
- overly salty foods — too much sodium, especially from packaged foods or restaurant meals that have added MSG and other chemicals, can cause dehydration and muscle constriction
4. Work On Improving Your Posture
Staring into a screen all day can contribute to headaches because of increased stress and possibly also the effects of blue light omitted from electronic devices — but don’t forget that your posture is also very important. Poor posture can cause shoulder, neck or scalp muscle to become tense, pinching nerves that can lead to headache pain. Studies show that this is especially true if you’ve dealt with injuries in the past that have affected muscles along your spine, shoulders or neck.
Wondering how to improve posture? Work on improving your posture both when sitting or standing. Hold your shoulders back and your head level, parallel to the ground, instead of hunching forward.
If you’re sitting for long hours at a desk, use a supportive chair that helps your muscles relax naturally, keep a computer screen at eye level (so your neck doesn’t become tight) and pull in your core/abdomen to keep you sitting upright. The most supportive types of desk chairs help keep your spine long, back upright so your head isn’t slumping forward and your thighs parallel to the ground.
5. Exercise and Move More
Regularly getting exercise is great for lowering stress, plus it has positive effects on blood pressure levels, sleep and your overall health. People who exercise more are less likely to deal with stressful diseases (like heart problems or diabetes), obesity and depression. Physical activity also improves circulation and can help build strength in muscles that support good posture.
Studies find that moderate exercise can reduce the frequency and severity of strong headaches, even migraine attacks, in some people — especially when coupled with other healthy habits like a nutrient-dense diet and getting good sleep. Exercise benefits your mood by changing levels of the body’s natural “feel good” chemicals called endorphins, which are natural pain killers and antidepressants.
6. Acupuncture and Massage Therapy
Two powerful ways to lower stress and fight muscle contractions, headaches and pain are acupuncture and massage therapy. Acupuncture involves hair-thin, tiny needles inserted into certain meridians on the body that are believed in traditional Chinese medicine to ignite positive energy flow and help relieve chronic headache pain.
Similarly, dry needling is often used by healthcare providers to relieve symptoms in patients with certain types of headaches, including tension headaches, cervicogenic headache (which begins in the neck typically) and migraines. A 2021 meta-analysis examined how dry needling affected headache pain intensity and related disability. For patients with tension-type headaches, dry needling “provided significantly greater improvement in related disability in the short term.”
Massage therapy can also help reduce stress and relieve muscle constrictions, stiffness and tension in the shoulders, head and neck. One technique that massage therapists use is called craniosacral therapy. One study published in the American Journal of Public Health reported that massage therapy over a two-week period reduced headache frequency, duration and intensity when compared to a control group.
Cupping therapy also may help prevent tension headaches.
Migraines certainly have a reputation for causing a whole lot of pain, but for some people ongoing tension headaches can be just as distracting and debilitating. From a clinical perspective, it’s hard to distinguish ordinary headaches from migraines, since the what causes migraines can overlap with causes of tension headaches. Some people experience both in the same time period, alternating between very intense pain and duller but longer-lasting tension headaches.
One thing that sets the two apart is that migraine headaches are thought to be caused partially by visual disturbances, light and noise, but this isn’t as common for tension headaches. Migraines can also become so intense that they can cause an upset stomach (like nausea or vomiting), but tension headaches usually affect someone’s mood and ability to concentrate more than anything. Migraine headaches also typically affect only one side of the head, causing an intense pain that can feel like throbbing, which makes it especially hard to carry on with a normal day.
Another interesting and distinguishing factor is that exercise can trigger a migraine (or even cluster headaches) or make it worse for some people, but the opposite is normally true for tension headaches: Regular physical activity usually helps beat tension headaches and stops them from reoccurring.
Keep in mind that while tension headaches are not always serious or an indication that something is very wrong below the surface, there are times when chronic headaches can indicate a bigger problem even more serious than migraines. If you have symptoms including abrupt and very severe headaches that develop out of nowhere, intense stiffness around the neck, blurred vision, numbness or a fever, it’s a good idea to see your doctor or even visit the emergency room if the pain becomes bad enough.
- As anyone who has experienced one before knows, a tension headache can be debilitating and affect your concentration, making it difficult to get through your day.
- However, if you manage your stress, eat a healthy diet, improve your posture, exercise, and try acupuncture and/or massage therapy, you can not only relieve your tension headache, but prevent recurrence of one.