Simple Headache Relief

Learn about common triggers and how to ease the pain

Photo: woman rubbing temples/forehead

Like unexpected rain, a tension headache can pop out of nowhere to put a damper on your day. Tension headaches are “the headaches of everyday life,” says Richard Lipton, MD, a neurology professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and director of the Montefiore Headache Center in New York. Fortunately, there are headache triggers you can control and easy remedies to zap headache pain.

Tension headaches fall under two umbrellas: those caused by stress tension and those caused by muscular tension, says Daniel Spogen, MD, an American Academy of Family Physicians board member. As the name implies, stress headaches are caused by stress.

Muscular tension headaches happen when your neck, shoulder, and upper back muscles are strained. “The pain receptors are all awry” with muscular tension headaches, says Juliet Nimako, MD, a family practitioner in Dedham, MA.

Here’s how to beat common tension headache triggers.

Whether work, home, or the car that cut you off in traffic is the cause, stress can trigger a pounding headache. Try a change of scenery by moving to a different spot in the room or taking a quick walk. If you can’t get away, close your eyes, and take slow, deep breaths. “Breathe in, count to two, breathe out, and count to two,” Dr. Spogen says. Relax your muscles from head to toe.

Bad Posture
Hunching over your desk for hours can stress the muscles in your upper body. So can lifting and moving objects with poor form. Sit tall in your chair, and try to stand and stretch every hour. When lifting, bend and straighten your knees so as not to put all the pressure on your back. Is the damage done? Try a hot or cold compress on your head and neck to soothe pain naturally.

Facial Tension
Clenching your jaw and grinding your teeth can keep your head and neck muscles tight. Many people do this without even realizing it. If you catch yourself tensing up, try to relax your mouth and face. A gentle temple massage may also help ease facial tension, says Sandra Fryhofer, MD, past president of the American College of Physicians.

TV and Computer Screens
Binge-watching a TV series might entertain you, but it could also strain your eyes. “If you’re staring at a screen for more than 2 hours straight, you can give yourself a headache,” Dr. Spogen says. The same is true if you sit at a computer for most of the day.

Try this test: Hold your thumb in front of your face, and focus on your knuckle. Move your thumb toward you slowly. Are you seeing double? The muscles that move your eyes are strained. You can actually strengthen these muscles with “pencil push-ups,” Dr. Lipton says. Hold a pencil in front of your face, and move it slowly toward you, focusing on it until you see double. Move it back, and repeat. It’s also a good idea to take “eye breaks” by looking away from the screen every 20 to 30 minutes.

Processed Foods
Your lunch sandwich may be a surprising headache culprit. Studies have shown that nitrates in processed meats, such as deli meats and sausage, can trigger headaches, Dr. Fryhofer says. Choose low-nitrate options, or use grilled chicken or water-packed tuna instead.

Do you reach for aspirin at the first sign of a headache? It turns out that could actually give you a rebound headache. Limit your over-the-counter anti-inflammatory use to 10 times a month to avoid giving yourself even more headaches, Dr. Nimako recommends.