How to prevent and get rid of tension headaches

It’s the end of a long day, and your head hurts. It feels like there’s a tight band around your skull. The pain isn’t terrible, but it makes it hard to focus or be productive. That’s the siren call of a tension headache

Tension headaches usually show up in the afternoon, after the muscles in the jaw, neck, shoulders, and scalp have been tensing throughout the day. Tension headaches are also the most common headache—nearly 80% of people in the US experience them, and they can be chronic. But why do we get them, and what can we do about them?

What causes tension headaches?

Brando LakesOne of the leading causes of tension headaches is stress, but anxiety, eye strain, fatigue, poor posture, and nutrition can all play a part.

Brando Lakes, one of Orthology’s physical therapists at Union Square, has been helping patients with tension headaches for years. As Brando explains it, there are two muscle groups at play in tension headaches: the Temporalis and Suboccipitals. The Temporalis muscle closes your mouth. The Suboccipital muscles bring your head forward. With anxiety and stress, these muscles become tight and overused. When tight, these muscles clench your teeth and bring you into a forward-head posture.

These muscles can also pull upon a nerve along the forehead. When that nerve is pulled, you experience a headache and sometimes pain around your eyes. 

What can I do to prevent tension headaches?

To prevent tension headaches, the best thing you can do is mitigate the things that cause them. You can start by:

  1. Getting good sleep. This means not only getting 7-9 hours of sleep every night, but on a consistent schedule. This can be really challenging depending on your work and family needs, but a consistent sleep routine can do wonders for your mental and physical wellbeing.
  2. Limit stress. We can’t control what happens to us, but we can control how we react to it. If tension headaches are a problem in your life, try maintaining a meditation practice. Schedule 20 minutes a day for yourself to unwind—maybe take a walk, or just listen to the birds. 
  3. Exercise. Exercise actually eases stress. But pay attention to your jaw, neck, and shoulder. Try to keep them loose. Tightening up in these areas won’t help your headaches.
  4. Hydrate. Like your car needs oil to run efficiently, you need water. If you struggle to drink water, put a reminder in your phone, or fill a large container at the beginning of the day, and focus on finishing it. 
  5. Take desk breaks. If you think your tension headaches may be exacerbated by screentime and poor posture, schedule breaks away from your desk. Use that time to stretch or walk. 

How can I make a tension headache go away?

Many of us instinctively rub our temples when we have a tension headache, and that’s a good guess at relieving the pain. Here is the technique Brando suggests for his patients:

  1. Place two to three fingers firmly between your ear and eyebrow on each side. That’s the Temporalis muscle.
  2. Gently massage along the Temporalis muscle while alternating between opening and closing your mouth. Do this for 2-5 minutes.
  3. Then, to massage the Suboccipital muscles, place your fingers on the back of your head at the top of your neck.
  4. Make a double chin to stretch the muscles under your fingers, and then massage them for 2-5 minutes. 

Remember, relief is great, but prevention is better. Stress is the number one culprit when it comes to tension headaches, so instead of waiting for the headache to come, keep an eye out for when you’re feeling tense. If you can notice the onset of stress, you take steps to alleviate it, and hopefully prevent the next tension headache. 

If you have questions about your tension headaches, the team at Orthology is always there for you.