What Is A Tension Headache: Relief, Symptoms, And Medication

What Is A Tension Headache?

The common headache that people often mistake migraine for is also known as a tension headache. According to the American Migraine Foundation, they are the most common type of headache, affecting three-quarters of the general population. 

Tension Headache Symptoms

Tension-type headaches often feel like a constricting band, like a tight, vice-like grip around the head. The pain often wraps from one temple, across the forehead to the other temple. 

Tension Headache Relief And Treatment

Tension headache relief may be found more easily than a migraine attack. Because the severity is less, tools for relief may have a bigger impact sooner. Understanding in advance and being prepared for tension headaches will help you respond quicker, potentially lessening the severity and duration and relieving the tension headache. One of the ways you can find tension headache relief is to have your very own headache toolbox!

A headache toolbox can be compared to the types of tools for professional uses. For
example, a dentist uses X-ray, high pressure water and air, scrapers and picks, and
medications. You can assemble a Toolbox and put together a plan in advance of your
next tension headache.


First, reflect on actions, medications and tools that have helped provide relief in the
past. Second, consider adding some of the following:
– Ice roller: Store the roller in the freezer and use it to roll across the temple
– Migraine cap: Gel packs in the cap freeze and the cap is stored in the freezer;
use for all over relief
– Rice/lavender/buckwheat pack: Use a pack that can be heated in the microwave
and laid across the temple, around the neck or on the shoulders
– Massage ball: Use a small massage ball (or even a tennis ball) to roll across
shoulders, the temple or down the neck while up against a wall

Third, find a convenient storage container (this can be as simple as a shoe box or an
acrylic organizer box) to keep your tools inside. Be sure to keep your preferred tension headache medications, from ibuprofen to Aleve, Naproxen or Excedrin for tension headaches!


Finally, put pen to paper (or type up and print out a list) and enumerate all of the tools in
your toolbox, along with actions or steps you can take, such as:
– Hydrate: Immediately increase water consumption
– Caffeine: For some people, a caffeine + Excedrin combo can provide quick relief
– Take a walk: Fresh air and big movement calms the nervous system
– Take a nap: A quick 20-minute nap after taking medication has proven to be
effective in quicker headache resolution (be sure to set a timer)
– Stretch: Take a few minutes to stretch tense neck and shoulder muscles
– Schedule a massage or chiropractic visit


Once you’ve assembled your toolbox, keep it in a convenient place so you’ll remember
to access it and use the tools you’ve gathered and identified. With all these different ways to get rid of tension headaches, you will be able to find your own “sweet spot” in terms of tension headache relief.

How Is A Tension Headache Different From Migraine?

Occasionally, we will hear some well-intentioned, yet misguided people tell us certain things that betray their ignorance of what migraine is, like..

Migraine is JUST a headache, no??

Most of the time, we will just sigh at their ignorance. Our reaction might even be more visceral: we feel a surge of incredulity and annoyance coursing through our veins. We WISH someone would educate them.

Firstly, it’s important to remember that migraine is a neurological disease, whereas a tension headache is often just an episodic symptom. We may alleviate the pain of a tension headache with common over-the-counter (OTC) medication like Tylenol, but there is currently no cure for migraine and finding an effective relief method for a migraine attack is not as easy as simply popping a pill.

In terms of severity, duration, physical, mental impact, migraine attacks are often more debilitating than tension headaches. This is because migraine attacks also often come with nausea and vomiting, even though the pain may feel similar to a tension headache. Even so, the pain of most tension headaches is usually not severe enough to inhibit physical activity. 

A final, important step you can take is tracking your headaches. From tension headaches to migraine attacks, Migraine Buddy helps you note duration, severity, time and place – and track what you used in your toolbox that did or didn’t help. When the next tension headache comes up, grab that toolbox and the Migraine Buddy app for quick and easy direction on what to do for relief.

This article is written by Susan Bassett, one of our amazing #MBvolunteers. If you would like to make a difference in the migraine community, join us here!

Jenny from Migraine Buddy
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