There are two main kinds of common headaches — tension headaches and migraines.1 Migraines are mostly much worse than tension headaches,2 but not necessarily: even “just” a tension headache can be amazingly nasty.
What’s happening in a classic tension headache is simpler than the physiology of migraine. Most tension headaches are cervicogenic headaches (“from the neck”), and probably consist mostly of muscle pain3 — neck and jaw muscles that are painfully tight, and full of “trigger points” (knots)4 that are radiating pain all over your head, and sometimes down into your neck, shoulders and even arms as well.
Although tension headache pain can come from several locations (discussed below), the most classic source the suboccipitals muscle group underneath the back of the skull. This is not necessarily obvious, and for a surprising number of people, treating tension headaches can be as simple as learning about this one “perfect spot” for massage.
There are many other types of less common headaches,5 and some of them have serious medical causes. You need medical assessment before treating your headaches as tension headaches if your headache has not already been diagnosed and it is:
And a headache can be all that and often still turn out to be a tension headache.
The worst case scenario in most cases is either “just” the annoyance of chronic headaches. Tension headaches can also be amazingly severe, but even the worst ones aren’t dangerous. (This also applies to migraines, even though they can severe enough to stop normal life.)
The main thing is just to recognize — with expert help — when a headache isn’t just a tension or migraine headache. Consider the chilling but entertaining story of scientist Yvette d’Entremont:
I got the worst headache of my life and it didn’t go away. This horrible ache took residency behind my left eye and refused an eviction notice. I consulted endless doctors and it took eight months to find the first doctor who would start getting my headaches under control…
After a multi-year diagnostic journey, the headaches turned out to be caused by a combination of two fairly rare medical problems. So, again, headaches with unusual characteristics (red flags) should be taken seriously. You should be particularly concerned about any headache that came out of nowhere, with no obvious cause, and won’t go away, or a headache that keeps coming back worse than before. In such cases, please make an appointment with your doctor.
After concussions, people often suffer from headaches, a signature feature of post-concussion syndrome, “a complex disorder in which various symptoms — such as headaches and dizziness — last for weeks and sometimes months after the injury that caused the concussion” (Mayo Clinic). Post-concussion headaches cannot be directly treated by any means: they are “brain aches,” related to the trauma to the brain. Obviously this is not a tension headache. Treatment like massage might still be helpful, but only for temporary relief.
However, there might be much more involved of other tissues in many cases. The headaches may also be caused by both trauma and/or tension in the musculature of the head neck and face, for instance. To the extent that this is the case, the kinds of treatments below are much more likely to help.
Fortunately, there is quite lot that you can do yourself to get relief from tension headaches.
Relaxation — They are called “tension” headaches for a reason! Stress relief and relaxation is often the magic bullet with chronic headaches. Most tension headaches can be traced to mental and emotional overexertion and exhaustion, or sitting too long in front of a computer (or both). Obviously, rest helps a headache. But consider the less obvious: headaches should not happen regularly, and you should consider them an important communication from your body if they are. A returning headache could be your body saying to you, “Whatever you are doing, knock it off.” Consider changing your lifestyle: less stress, less computer, whatever it takes. Chronic headaches aren’t just annoying — they are proof that you are doing something your body really does not appreciate.
Heat or cool the head and neck — Heating or cooling can really help with tension headaches, but you have to be careful which one you choose. Ordinarily, spasmed or chronically tight muscles need heat — but in the case of headaches, heat can sometimes contribute to a very uncomfortable flushed or congested feeling that just makes it worse. Use your instincts. What will work in the case of a headache is whatever feels soothing. If cool washcloths feel soothing, use that. If steaming washcloths sound better to you, use those instead. It may vary from one time to the next. Sometimes alternating back and forth feels great. Experiment with temperature and location. Don’t forget to include your neck, face and jaw muscles, which are a very important part of the tension equation with all headaches. For lots of ideas about hydrotherapy, see Hydrotherapy. For more about choosing between hot and cold, see The Great Ice vs. Heat Confusion Debacle.
Mobilizing — Most commonly, it is the muscles of the neck and shoulders and jaw that directly cause headache pain. To stimulate them back to health, move them rhythmically: gently stretch your jaw open several times in a row, roll your head around in a circle. See Mobilize! for more information.
Bioenergetic breathing exercises — Headaches are often involve psychological factors, and so vigorous breathing exercises — an easy way of blowing off steam and shifting mental state — tend to be helpful for headaches. To pursue this treatment option, you should read The Art of Bioenergetic Breathing first. Note that breathing for headaches can be as challenging as it is rewarding: they are likely to feel worse before they get better, but that is part of the process.
Postural exercise — Postural dysfunction is commonly implicated in tension headaches, particularly the common “head forward” posture. Whether this is actually a problem or not is unclear, and even if it is correcting posture is a difficult and uncertain business, however — please see Does Posture Correction Matter? for a variety of suggestions on how to proceed. But beware of the possibility of wasting time with this option.
Invest in a telephone headset — If you spend more than fifteen minutes per day on the phone, and you get tension headaches, you need to buy a headset for your telephone. You may already have a phone that you can plug a headset into, or you may need to buy a new phone that will accept a headset. In either case, purchase a headset separately from Radio Shack — they sell sturdy, good quality headsets that will last much longer than the ones usually available from telephone retailers.
Improve your computer work station ergonomics — Computer work stations, even when they are properly set up, can cause headaches (in more ways than one). If you work with a computer for more than an hour per day, you should take care to ensure that it is properly set up. The factor most relevant to headaches is monitor position: it should be at least two feet away from you, and the top of the screen should be at or slightly below eye level. See my article about ergonomics, Unconventional Ergonomics, and IBM’s guide to computer work station ergonomics, Healthy Computing, for more information.
Upgrade your eyewear — It’s amazing how easy it is to forget that it may be time to upgrade your eyeglasses prescription. Don’t feel silly! This can sneak up on anyone! A related problem, and becoming increasingly common as aging people adopt computer usage, is with bifocals and trifocals: reading a computer screen with bifocals or trifocals usually demands tilting the head back to look at the screen through the narrow, bottom pane of the glasses. This causes a chronic contraction of the suboccipital muscles at the back of the skull — major culprits in the world of headaches. If you have bifocals and trifocals and you are using a computer for more than an hour per day, you should definitely invest in a pair of glasss for the computer screen only.
Massage and self-massage — Saving the most obvious for last: massage of practically any part of the head, face or neck will usually help with tension headaches, in many cases relieving the problem completely. The best bang for your buck, however, is often in the suboccipital region under the back of the skull, as mentioned in the introduction. There are several possibilities, however…
Chiropractic adjustment and spinal manipulation — If tension headaches come from the neck, does a spinal adjustment from a chiropractor help? It’s possible. It might relieve pain and muscle spasm by stimulating nerve endings in muscles and joints, kind of like scratching a difficult-to-reach itch. But there isn’t enough scientific evidence to know, unfortunately.6 Meanwhile, there are serious reasons to beware of spinal adjustment in the neck without proven benefits to justify the unclear risks7 — risks that are higher in patients with unexplained headaches, which can have serious causes.
Many people with a headache reach for one of the common non-prescription pain-killers long before they think of trying anything else. There are several confusing options, and some hazards that apply to everyone — and some that apply to headache sufferers in particular. Here’s a general summary:
Over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications are fairly safe in moderation and work in different ways, so do experiment…cautiously. There are four kinds: acetominophen/paracetamol (Tylenol, Panadol), plus three non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs): aspirin (Bayer, Bufferin), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), and naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn). Don’t take any of them chronically — risks go up over time, and they can even backfire and cause pain (rebound headaches). Acetominophen is good for fever and pain, and is one of the safest of all drugs at recommended dosages, but overdose can badly hurt livers and it doesn’t work well (at all?) for musculoskeletal pain. NSAIDs reduce inflammation as well as pain and fever, but at any dose they can cause heart attacks and strokes and they are “gut burners” — they can badly irritate the GI tract (even taken with food, and especially with booze). Aspirin is usually best for joint and muscle pain, but it’s the most gut-burning of them all. Voltaren® Gel is an ointment NSAID, safer for treating superficial pain.
That “analgesic rebound” thing is total deal-killer for a lot of people with chronic headaches. See the next section for more about rebound, but the main caution is very clear: don’t use any of these medications long term! It will make a bad situation worse.
Is there any scientific evidence that any of these readily available pain killers actually work? Not nearly enough, of course — a classic case of a surprisingly unstudied treatment. However, according to a major 2016 review, ibuprofen does seem to work quite well… but only for some people.8 Only about 1 in 6 people will get a good result, and you have to give (400mg) ibuprofen to 14 people to find just one who gets complete headache relief. This tends to suggest that inflammation is more relevant to some headaches than others.
Just please be cautious with those pills! They are definitely not entirely safe.
One day I developed an extraordinary headache. It was one of those can’t-wake-up days. Coffee didn’t put a dent in the mental fog. The pain started late morning. Given my biases, it seemed like it began with a trigger point: stiffness and pain sneaking up the right side of my neck muscles, and then spreading out over the back of my skull, a sickly pain, like a zombie hand.
I massaged and soaked to no avail. It got worse. It progressed so steadily that I was queezy with the pain by midafternoon.
By the evening, it was migraine-esque. It was not a migraine — it lacked the paralyzing intensity of a migraine — but it was certainly the worst tension headache I’d ever experienced. I shuffled through a visit with a friend. I excused myself at 9:30 and collapsed in bed, whimpering and defeated. I feel into a fitful sleep that helped a little.
But the headache came back steadily in the morning. A couple hours in the day it was starting to get fierce again already. It was incredibly intimidating. It was horrible to think of another whole day like that.
And then an explanation for my suffering popped into my head, fully formed, a kind of eureka moment.
Did I accidentally buy decaf coffee? Did I? Because … if I did … that would … oh my …
I don’t know what tipped me off, but I practically sprinted to the kitchen to confirm it: I had bought the wrong coffee, and I had been drinking decaf for a day and a half. I had misread the packaging.
I’m a caffeine addict. I normally drink about 32oz of strong coffee every single day, and have for years. And I had just quit caffeine cold turkey without knowing it.
My experience was a vivid demonstration of withdrawal physiology, which is pretty much the same reason that one million Britons have headaches from overusing painkillers. Whenever your body gets artificial help of any kind in feeling better, it suffers when the help runs out. Overuse a pain-killer, and your body starts to depend on it — and not just the hard stuff.
And so even ordinary pain-killers may actually lead to more pain over time, if you keep taking them. Your body gets used to the drug supply and starts to dial down its own pain-management systems, so you end up feeling more pain when you reduce your intake. This can be a subtle vicious cycle that can go on for years without being particularly obvious — just routinely making things a little worse.
There are probably even cases of chronic headaches that are entirely the result of chronic use of pain-killers. So ironic!
When people are troubleshooting pain, they don’t usually think of their pain meds. Or coffee. We should start.
If tension headaches are caused by muscle tension, perhaps they can be treated by paralyzing those tense muscles with one of the most potent toxins known to science: botulinum toxin A, AKA Botox.
What could possibly go wrong? Well, “a greater frequency of blepharoptosis, skin tightness, paresthesias, neck stiffness, muscle weakness, and neck pain.” That’s what could go wrong. Those adverse events were observed in a 2012 review of many scientific trials of Botox for headaches. They concluded it was only a little more beneficial than using a placebo,9 and definitely has more risks. These are not encouraging results. There seems to be little reason for patients with tension headaches to seek out this rather exotic treatment, though for some desperate patients it might go at the bottom of a list of things to try.
Three amusing migraine items from cantakerous neurologist blogger, Dr. Grumpy:
I am a science writer, former massage therapist, and assistant editor of ScienceBasedMedicine.org. I have had my share of injuries and pain challenges as a runner and ultimate player. My wife and I live in downtown Vancouver, Canada. See my full bio and qualifications, or my blog, Writerly. You might run into me on Facebook and Google, but mostly Twitter.