Tension-type headaches: Self-care measures for relief

Headaches can interfere with daily life. But healthy lifestyle choices can help you head off the pain. Start with diet, exercise and relaxation.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Nearly everyone knows the pain of tension-type headaches. But the world doesn't stop when the pain strikes. Medicines may relieve the pain. But simply taking good care of yourself may help prevent a headache.

Make healthy lifestyle choices

A healthy lifestyle can promote good overall health. It also may help prevent all types of headaches, including tension-type headaches. Here are the basics:

  • Eat nutritious foods on a regular schedule. Don't skip meals, especially breakfast. Drink plenty of water each day.
  • Exercise regularly. Exercise releases chemicals in the body that block pain signals to the brain. Talk with your health care provider about exercise and choose activities you enjoy. They might include walking, swimming or cycling. But be sure to start slowly. Exercising too intensely can cause 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 medicines that contains caffeine or other stimulants that can affect sleep. This can include some headache medicines. Also keep in mind that sleep apnea can cause tension-type headaches, especially if you have headaches in the mornings. Sleep apnea is a sleep disorder in which breathing stops and starts throughout the night. Seeing a health care provider and getting treatment for sleep apnea can ease its symptoms.
  • Avoid large amounts of caffeine. Caffeine may help curb headaches. But heavy daily caffeine use can lead to headaches. Generally, getting more than 400 milligrams of caffeine a day — more than about four cups of coffee — can cause headaches and irritability. Regular caffeine use also increases the risk of headaches. Even quitting caffeine can cause headaches. This may happen whether you quit suddenly or cut back gradually.
  • Be mindful of common pain medicines. You can buy pain medicine at the store. But using this medicine more than nine days a month can make headaches harder to treat. If this is the case, see a health care provider.
  • Quit smoking. The nicotine in cigarette smoke reduces blood flow to the brain. It also triggers a reaction in the nerves at the back of the throat. These changes can 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, try to do less.
  • Take a break. If you feel overwhelmed, a few slow stretches or a quick walk may help lower your stress level.
  • Breathe. Take several deep breaths and count to 10 to help reduce feelings of stress.
  • 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.

Ease muscle tension

Tense muscles can trigger tension-type headaches. Apply heat to relieve tense neck and shoulder muscles. Use a heating pad set on low, a hot water bottle, a hot shower or bath, a warm compress, or a hot towel. Or apply ice or a cool washcloth to the forehead.

Massage also can relieve muscle tension — and sometimes headache pain. Gently massage your temples, scalp, neck and shoulders with your fingertips, or gently stretch your neck.


Take time to unwind every day. Try this deep-breathing exercise:

  • Lie down on your back. Or sit comfortably with your feet flat on the floor and your hands in your lap.
  • Imagine yourself in a peaceful place such as a beach or quiet forest. Keep this scene in your mind.
  • Breathe in and out slowly and deeply for at least 10 minutes.
  • When you're done, sit quietly for a minute or two.

Try to practice these breathing exercises or another form of relaxation every day.

Keep a headache diary

A diary may help you learn what triggers your tension-type headaches. Note when your headaches start and your activities. Also record how long the headaches last and anything that provides relief. The diary may help you spot patterns in your daily habits that may lead to headaches.

Look for improvements in your headaches as you make additional healthy lifestyle changes.

Oct. 01, 2022 See more In-depth