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Relieving Tension Headaches Without Medication


Updated January 04, 2009

Headaches come in a number of varieties -- migraines, tension headaches, sinus headaches -- but regardless of the type, it can be a debilitating and downright annoying condition. A majority of headache sufferers have headaches that can be labeled as tension headaches. Through the years, many theories have surrounded the cause of these headaches. The name comes from the fact that tension in the muscles of the neck can cause significant pain in the head, but tension in the form of stress can certainly contribute to this common cause of headache. Besides using traditional anti-inflammatory (such as ibuprofen or naproxen) and pain-relieving medications, there are also other ways to reduce tension in your life so these headaches become a thing of the past.


The first thing to do is relax. It may be easier said than done, but it is a skill that our society has lost over time. We are bombarded with activities and responsibilities, but we are rarely presented with opportunities to calm ourselves and learn to manage stress. Relaxation begins with identifying those things that make us feel good. It may be watching a television program, listening to our favorite musical album, or going for a nice walk in the evening. Other things you can do to relax include making healthy food choices, finding a quiet spot into which you can retreat if things get overwhelming, exercising, avoiding doing activities that make you feel guilty, and spending time with your favorite pet. Whatever it is, taking time for yourself will reduce the effects of the stresses in your life.


Breathing goes hand in hand with relaxation. Sure, breathing is automatic, that’s the beauty of it, right? Well, it is automatic, but it is also an activity over which you have an immense amount of control. Ayurvedic practitioners and yogis will tell you that since it is the only activity that you can perform both voluntarily and automatically breathing is a perfect way to access the subconscious, and to gain control over processes commonly thought of as “out of reach.” Whether or not you are looking for a window to the subconscious, proper breathing promotes relaxation and is a powerful tool for dealing with pain.

Pranayama, or yogic breathing, is a good way to learn to breathe. Begin by sitting quietly without any distractions. Take a nice, slow, continuous breath in through your nose. Hold it for a few seconds without making any other movements. Then slowly exhale through your mouth. Again, like during inhalation, your exhalation should be smooth and continuous. Once you’ve exhaled, take a short, deliberate pause before starting the cycle again. It sounds simple, but even simple tactics can help you deal with tension headaches.

During this whole process, you want to focus on how the air is entering your lungs and then exiting. That is all you need to think about -- breathing in and breathing out. Once you’ve really begun to visualize the path the air is taking you want to “direct” the breath to areas of pain. Imagine the breath going into your lungs and then heading to your temples or forehead, wherever you’re hurting. Then picture the breath drawing the pain away and out through your exhaled air. This routine requires a lot of practice, but one that can be immensely helpful.

Stop Stressing

Finally, learn to stop stress before it starts. Plan ahead for situations you can anticipate; take a short walk before a meeting at work you think may be a tough one; take a few deep breaths before entering into a heated discussion (or better yet, try to avoid the heated discussions whenever you are able). Prioritize your to-do list into categories like “must be done” and “can wait a day or two.”Others have suggested using the “choose three things” approach. Select three things you will do on a particular day and do them. If you get to other things, that’s great, but at least make an effort on the three you’ve chosen. Recognize what are true necessities and what are only essential because you’ve placed undue pressure on yourself.

Stress happens and we can do little to eliminate it completely from our lives. But we can certainly learn to cope with the pressures of life, and in time, implement effective relaxation strategies that will reduce the amount of tension we experience and hopefully deal with headaches.


Brown, R.P and P.L. Gerbarg. "Sudarshan Kriya Yogic breathing in the treatment of stress, anxiety, and depression. Part II--clinical applications and guidelines." J Altern Complement Med. 2005 Aug;11(4):711-7.

Galego, J.C., et al. "Chronic daily headache: stress and impact on the quality of life." Arq Neuropsiquiatr. 2007 Dec;65(4B):1126-9.

The Art of Yoga Breathing. ABC-of-Yoga. Retrieved: August 28, 2008. http://www.abc-of-yoga.com/pranayama/

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