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.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Nearly everyone is familiar with the pain of tension-type headaches. But that doesn't mean that the world stops when the pain strikes. Over-the-counter or prescription medications may help, but simply taking good care of yourself also can help prevent a pounding headache.

Make healthy lifestyle choices

A healthy lifestyle can promote good overall health and help prevent tension-type headaches. Here are the basics:

  • Eat healthy foods. Don't skip meals, especially breakfast, and drink plenty of water each day.
  • Exercise regularly. Exercise releases chemicals in your body that block pain signals to the brain. With your doctor's permission, choose any exercise you enjoy, whether that's walking, swimming or cycling. 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 something soothing until you're drowsy. Avoid medications (including some headache medications) that contain caffeine and other stimulants that can affect sleep.
  • Avoid excess caffeine. While caffeine may help curb headaches, heavy daily caffeine use — more than 200 milligrams of caffeine a day (about two regular cups of coffee) — can cause headaches and irritability. And chronic caffeinating also increases the risk of headaches, as well as suddenly quitting caffeine altogether.
  • Quit smoking. The nicotine in cigarette smoke reduces blood flow to the brain, and triggers a reaction in the nerves at the back of the throat, which may lead to a headache.

Keep stress under control

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

  • Simplify your life. Don't look for ways to squeeze more activities or chores into the day; instead find things you can leave out.
  • Take a break. If you feel overwhelmed, a few slow stretches or a quick walk may renew your energy levels.
  • Exhale. When you feel your stress levels rising, take several deep breaths and count to 10.
  • Adjust your attitude. Think positive thoughts. Don't think that something is impossible; tell yourself that you are up to the challenge.
  • Let go. Don't worry about things you can't control.
July 28, 2015 See more In-depth