Just what you don't need. It's been a really bad day, you have homework in every single subject, soccer practice ran late, your best friend still isn't talking to you...and now you have this wicked tension headache that won't ease up. How are you supposed to get anything done when you feel like you have an iron band around your skull?
First of all, relax! There is help at hand. While your first inclination may be to reach for a painkiller such as Tylenol® or Advil®, a better approach may be to deal with the stress or tension that caused that clamp-like feeling in the first place. While you can't always control the stress factors in your life, you can
control the way you react to them. Below are some natural ways to help heal a tension headache—or even prevent one before it starts. Note that these tips are for headaches that are not related to migraine
, or other, more serious causes. back to top
Lessen the stress
True to their name, tension headaches happen when stress and tension build up and cause the muscles in your neck, jaw, shoulders, and scalp to tighten until they hurt. Many people describe tension headaches as feeling like their head is being gripped by a vise. They feel a dull pressure in their forehead, temples, or back of the neck. When you sense that stress is building, you may find that a simple relaxation technique can relieve a tension headache or even prevent one from starting. Be aware, however, that stress-reduction exercises work best when you practice them on a daily basis, not just when you're already out of your mind with pain.
One way to blast that headache pain is breath control
. The beauty of breath control is that you can do it anywhere, anytime. One reliable exercise is The Relaxing Breath, an ancient technique that comes from yoga
. It works better the more you practice it. To learn how to do this easy exercise, click here
Try relieving tension before a headache even starts with progressive relaxation
, a technique in which you tighten and release all the muscle groups in your body, one by one. Studies have found that progressive relaxation works great in making tension headaches less severe. It can even stop them from happening altogether. back to top
Get to the point
When you have a headache, do you find that pressing or rubbing someplace on your face, head, or neck relieves the pressure? In the ancient Eastern art of acupressure
—a kind of needle-free version of acupuncture
—there are specific spots on your body that are thought to be connected with headache pain. Learning where to press may be a good trick to know. Interestingly, not all of these points are on your head, or even anywhere near it. That's because acupressure follows a belief that your body has a flow of energy, or qi
running through it. When that energy gets blocked at one point, it can cause problems somewhere else. Pressing on an "acu-point" connected to headaches is believed to free up the flow of qi throughout your body, which helps relieve the pain where you need it.
One handy acu-point for headaches is on your hand, on the webbing between your thumb and forefinger. This is a sneaky one to press on quietly when you don't want to advertise that your head is pounding—like in the middle of class during a boring lecture. There are also acu-points for head pain located at the base of your skull.
Don't use acupressure if you are pregnant or have a medical condition—check with a health professional first. back to top
Help for a headache may also be found in the world of herbs and aromatherapy
. One plant that has been used to ease the pain is peppermint
(Mentha x piperita
). Its essential oil contains menthol, a natural ingredient found in some ointments used to soothe muscle soreness. (One word of caution: never
use peppermint on or near the face of a child who is age 10 or younger. It may cause a choking reflex.) Here are a couple of ways to use peppermint for headache pain:
- There's the rub! Mix 1 part peppermint essential oil with about 9 parts of an unscented base oil used for aromatherapy or massage, such as grapeseed oil or palm oil. (These oils can be found in health-food stores.) Rub the mixture gently on your forehead and temples (the sides of your forehead) for a couple of minutes. You can repeat this in 15 minutes or so if necessary. Note that tiger balm (an herbal salve that also contains menthol) may also be used for this purpose.
- Peppermint compress. Fill a bowl with either hot or cold water (you may need to experiment to see which temperature works best for you) and add four or five drops of peppermint essential oil. Dip a clean cotton cloth into the water. Squeeze out excess water and place the wet cloth over your forehead. Lie down and chill. Repeat if necessary.
Don't use peppermint oil without first adding it to an oil base, like grapeseed or palm oil. Undiluted peppermint oil can irritate your skin. Also, don't use peppermint right before you go to bed—this stimulating herb can make it hard for you to sleep. back to top
One of the nicest things anyone can do for you when you have a tension headache is to give you a neck and shoulder massage
. Gently kneading those knotted muscles helps loosen them up and increases healing blood flow to the area that hurts. Is there a friend, sibling, or parent you could ask if you "kneaded" a favor—which you, of course,
would be happy to return when the time came? If you tend to get tension headaches often, you might even consider professional massage therapy (although it can get pretty pricey). back to top
An ounce of prevention
Tension headaches may sometimes be caused not by emotional tension, but by the physical tension of holding your head and neck in one position for too long. If you tend to get tension headaches, be conscious of how you sit when you're working at your desk or your computer. Keep your back straight and your feet on the floor. Take frequent breaks to look away from the computer monitor or your books. Stretch, walk around, and gently move your head from side to side. Be conscious of your posture, too: slouching or slumping may put undue pressure on your neck, leading to muscle soreness and headaches. back to top
When they still won't go away
If you've tried the above techniques and you still get headaches often, you may need to talk to your health professional to rule out other possible causes. Some treatments to consider might be acupuncture
. Both of these have been used successfully to tame tension headaches. back to top