Hands-On Help for Tension Headaches

March 4, 2012
HealthyWoman from Bottom Line
Trupti Gokani, MD

An argument with your spouse, an impossible deadline at work, a traffic jam that makes you miss a long-awaited appointment—these are the types of everyday stresses that can lead to tension headaches. Nearly everyone gets them at one time or another. And since women are more prone to this problem than men, you’re probably familiar with the symptoms—viselike pain or dull pressure that starts in the forehead or temple area and spreads over the entire head…plus tightness in the neck, shoulders and/or jaw. Symptoms typically last about half an hour, though they can persist for days.

Why not just pop a pill to get rid of the pain? Because doing so can actually make the problem worse, given that people who take over-the-counter or prescription pain medication more than three days a week on a regular basis may develop rebound headaches. Pain relievers also have potentially serious side effects, including increased risk for gastrointestinal bleeding, blood pressure problems, and kidney or liver damage.

Safer, speedy solutions: Hands-on techniques you can do yourself often relieve tension headaches within minutes, according to neurologist Trupti Gokani, MD, director of the North Shore Headache Clinic in Highland Park, Illinois.

You can try the methods below in any order. Unless otherwise indicated, continue with any given technique for about three minutes. Dr. Gokani noted that patients often try a technique for less than a minute and then give up—but it takes time to modify the stress response that the body naturally enters into when pain is perceived. It also is important to relax and breathe while doing the techniques, she added…simple oxygenation helps quiet down the brain and relieve pain. If one technique does not help, try another. With a bit of experimentation, you’ll soon discover what works best for you.

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Acupressure. This soothes symptoms by easing muscle tension and/or triggering the release of pain-relieving endorphins. Pressure points to try…

  • The base of the skull. With hands interlaced at the back of your head, place your thumbs at the base of the skull where you feel the indentations on both sides of the neck muscle. Press with your thumbs—first gently, then with increasing pressure—breathing deeply and slowly tilting your head back.
  • The loose, webby skin between your thumb and index finger, about an inch from the edge. Using your right thumb and index finger, tightly squeeze this spot on the left hand (you may find it tender), massaging the area in small circles…then switch hands.
  • Above each eye, just beneath the center of each eyebrow. Use your thumbs to gently probe the area, looking for a small groove in the skull at the top of each eye socket—you’ll find a nerve that is very sensitive to pressure. Once you locate the right spot, carefully apply pressure for just five to 10 seconds—it will hurt, but the discomfort stimulates the pituitary gland to release endorphins.

Warm compress. Applied directly, heat helps relax muscles and therefore alleviates tension headache pain. Dr. Gokani suggested placing a warm, wet cloth or a microwavable heat pack on your forehead…if desired, place a second warm compress at the back of your neck.

Yoga poses. If you are an experienced yogini, check out the advanced headache-relieving poses at www.YogaJournal.com. Otherwise, place a mat or blanket on the floor and try these simple options…

Child’s pose. This promotes all-over relaxation and is especially effective at alleviating facial tension. Kneel with your knees hip-width apart and big toes touching…sit back on your heels…lean forward, resting your torso between your thighs…gently rest your forehead on the ground…rest your arms alongside your shins, palms up. Illustration: www.YogaJournal.com/poses/475.

Cat and cow stretch. These poses help release neck and back tension. Start on hands and knees, with your wrists directly below your shoulders and your knees directly below your hips. Exhaling, round your spine toward the ceiling, releasing your head toward the floor (cat pose)…then, as you inhale, allow your belly to drop toward the floor as you arch your back and lift your head to look straight forward (cow pose). Continue slowly and smoothly alternating between these two poses, holding each pose for a count of 10. Illustrations: www.YogaJournal.com/poses/2468 and www.YogaJournal.com/poses/2467.

Final note: If you experience severe, frequent or unremitting headaches, it is important to see your physician to check for possible underlying causes, Dr. Gokani said. However, for many people, one or more of the strategies above will be sufficient to provide speedy relief from tension headache pain.