Healthbeat

4 ways to tame tension headaches

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A tension headache can put a damper on your day. This kind of headache usually develops in the afternoon, causing mild or moderate pain that may feel like dull tightness or a band of pressure. Tension headaches occur when neck, shoulder, and scalp muscles become tense. Some people experience tension headaches from time to time; others get them more often. While this type of headache is rarely debilitating, it can certainly make life miserable.

If you have frequent tension headaches (more often than once or twice a week), here are some strategies that can help you prevent them:

  1. Pay attention to the basics. Get enough sleep, don't skip meals, and be sure to pace yourself to avoid stress and fatigue.
  2. Relaxation techniques. Physical and psychological relaxation therapies can help stave off tension headaches, so long as you practice these techniques regularly. Physical approaches include applying a heating pad to your neck and shoulders to relax the muscles. Exercising these muscles also helps by strengthening and stretching them. Guided imagery exercises that help you focus your attention on various parts of your body in order to relax them and release tension and stress can also help.
  3. Biofeedback. This relaxation technique requires special training but can help people avoid recurrent tension headaches. Typically, a therapist will attach electrodes to your skin to detect electrical signals from your neck and shoulder muscles. You then learn to recognize when you are becoming tense and practice ways to relax the muscles before they tighten so much that you develop a tension headache.
  4. Medical approaches. Some people with tension headaches have very sensitive areas, known as trigger points, at the back of the neck or in the shoulders. Injecting a local anesthetic into these areas may eliminate the pain and prevent the headache from occurring again. There are also a number of medications that can help keep tension headaches at bay. If non-drug therapies aren't giving you the relief you need, talk with your doctor about the medication options that might be right for you.

For more information on preventing, diagnosing, and treating headaches, buy Headaches: Relieving and preventing migraines and other headaches, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.

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