The average circumference of the human head is about 22 to 23 inches, but you will be surprised to know that 300 different types of headaches can afflict that small an area.
Is it any wonder that there isn’t a person on the planet who has never experienced a headache? Why, I feel even animals are not spared the wrath of the infamous noggin discomfort.
In fact, headaches are so common that nearly 95% of all female respondents and 91% of all male respondents to a survey reported experiencing headaches in the preceding year. For 20% of the population, headaches turn into a debilitating condition with multiple episodes of severe noggin pain each month.
Tension headaches account for 50% of all instances of ye ol’ pain in the head, and almost 75% of the people have suffered from this type of a headache at some point in their lives. I bet by now you are wondering…
What Exactly Is A Tension Headache?
A diffused, mild to moderate pain that arises when sensitive areas in and around the head are irritated, tension headaches can be felt all across the forehead or from one temple to the other, running across the back of the head.
This is a musculoskeletal pain that is usually attributed to tenseness in the soft tissue of the temples, the neck, face, jaw and scalp. The condition can take on two forms:
- Chronic: Episodes are experienced for 15 or more days a month over a period of 3 or more months.
- Episodic: Fewer than 15 episodes per month but the duration of each episode can last for 30 minutes to 7 days.
Tension Headache Symptoms
The pain itself has a nagging quality about it, which differentiates it from a migraine that causes throbbing pain. When describing the intensity of the pain, most people say that it feels like a dull ache with a distinct sense of pressure all across the forehead and the scalp, much like a rubber band being tightened around the head. As far as the other symptoms go, these include:
- Accompanying pain in the neck and upper shoulders.
- Tenderness in the temples and the jaw or face.
- Feeling of pressure in the eye area and around the eyes.
- Feeling of physical and mental fatigue.
- Difficulty sleeping.
Although a tension headache will leave you irritated and will mess up your day, the pain is not severe enough to impede daily activities. Also, a tension headache will not cause fever, vomiting, nausea, fainting or a general feeling of malaise. If your headache is accompanied by these symptoms, get in touch with your doctor promptly.
What Causes Tension Headaches?
Scores of factors and conditions can lead to tension headaches. Basically, anything that leads to spasms or tightening of the muscles in the head, neck, shoulders and face has the potential to cause tension headaches. Most likely causes include:
- Stress, depression and fatigue.
- Intense sensory inputs like loud noises or glare.
- Strain on the neck and/or head because you held yourself in one position for a long time.
- Fine work that calls for intense focus and strains the eyes.
- Using the microscope or other devices that impact vision.
- Alcohol use and hangover.
- Abnormal sleeping position.
- A pillow that is too high or too low.
- Dental problems.
- Very low temperature in the bedroom.
- Physical stress.
- Smoking excessively.
- Ear ache/infection.
- Excessive caffeine consumption.
- Cold, flu, sinus infection, sore throat and other respiratory infections.
How To Use Essential Oils For Tension Headaches?
The use of painkillers and caffeine, which are often prescribed and taken to deal with headaches (tension headaches and migraines) often backfires if you don’t keep a check on consumption. The problem is that even if you were to discount the detrimental impacts of painkillers on the liver, digestive system and the kidneys, you would still be left with the issue of tension headaches.
Yes, most OTC analgesics are known to cause tension headaches while caffeine rebound will also lead you down that path. The good news is that you don’t have to reach out for Tylenol when all you need is the soothing and calming effect of essential oils. In fact, with these natural extracts, you can opt for an integrative treatment approach that will deal with the pain and all the problems it causes. For instance, you could use essential oil blends:
- To control the play of neurotransmitters: High levels of serotonin and low levels of GABA play a role in the manifestation of tension headaches by constricting blood vessels and preventing muscle relaxation. Essential oils can be used through diffusion and topical application to regulate the levels of these neurotransmitters.
- To enhance blood circulation: In people, who suffer from chronic tension headaches, the circulatory system has a hard time keeping up with the demand of the hyperactive head, neck, face and shoulder muscles. Because essential oils work as vasodilators and improve circulation, they provide quick results against the pain and the pressure of tension headaches.
- To minimize the impact of stress and anxiety: While episodic tension headaches often stem from stress and anxiety, the chronic form of the condition leads to these mental issues. Fortunately, essential oils can help to control cortisol levels (stress levels) as well as depression and anxiety.
- To deal with sleep disorders: The lack of sleep is also known to cause tension headaches and the pain of the condition is known to disrupt sleep. Essential oils can help to break the vicious cycle by relaxing the body and the mind and inducing restful sleep.
The biggest advantage is that essential oils can be used in numerous ways to treat tension headaches. In fact, you could devise an approach that both prevents and treats the condition. For example:
- You can opt for a soothing head massage to relieve anxiety and stress and ease muscle contractions that may be causing the pain.
- Used with a hot compress, essential oils can magnify the pain relieving benefits of the heat and both prevent and treat tension headaches.
- When diffused, essential oils help to calm frayed nerves and aid in dealing with the sleep disturbances caused by tension headaches.
- Used on the tender points from where the pain radiates to the other parts of the head and the neck, these oils act as counter irritants and restrict the flow of the pain impulse to the brain.
If you don’t want to make up your own blend of essential oils, I would recommend AMOILS H-Headaches for all types of headaches, be it tension headaches, migraines, cluster headaches or sinus headaches. Read my review of this product for more information.
Best 6 Essential Oils For Tension Headaches
The icy cool sensation offered by most pain balms comes courtesy of this essential oil. The menthol in peppermint essential oil is not only a potent analgesic agent but also a powerful vasodilator that helps to improve blood circulation to the area of application. Moreover, the soothing coolness helps immensely in relieving muscle contractions and the accompanying mental distress if any.
This oil does the exact opposite of what peppermint does; while the latter cools, you can count on eucalyptus to provide a balancing warmth. Once again, we are talking about an extremely effective pain relieving agent here. But in addition to that, eucalyptus essential oil also helps to improve circulation and it is particularly effective when used on tense muscles in the neck and the shoulders.
This anti-inflammatory oil is well known for its ability to calm the mind and the body. Sandalwood essential oil is particularly effective when your tension headache kicks sleep out of the bedroom. Although not a sedative, the soothing and calming effects of this oil help to ease stress and anxiety and control the painful squeezing sensation that tension headaches are notorious for.
4. Roman chamomile
The calming impact of this oil gets to the brain first, and as the mental turbulence calms, the body follows, relaxing the vice grip on the muscles. So, this is one of the best oils for tension headaches that result from stressful situations. Of course, it works just as well when you need to deal with the depression caused by chronic headaches or the anxiety caused by an impending episode.
Another popular addition to this list, lavender essential oil has an almost immediate effect on cortisol levels. Because this hormone is generated in response to stress, fear, anxiety and other such emotions, cortisol contributes to muscle contractions. Fortunately, cortisol induced frenzies can easily be tamed with the linalyl acetate in lavender essential oil. Actually, this is one of the few essential oils that work on almost all types of headaches.
6. Lemon balm
If your tension headaches are rooted in emotional or physical exhaustion, lemon balm essential oil will be perfect for you. A natural vasodilator and relaxant, Melissa Officinalis has been used in the treatment of headaches and neuralgia since the 14th century. Known to drive away negativity and improve mood, this extract soothes muscle spasms and inflammation, properties that have a direct impact on the intensity of tension headaches.
In addition to these, you can also use the essential oils of rosemary, sweet marjoram, ginger, bergamot, coriander, sweet basil, rose and clary sage to treat tension headaches.
Essential Oil Recipes For Tension Headaches
Recipe 1 – Balm recipe
Consider rubbing this natural headache blend on your temples and the back of the neck to alleviate tension and ease the pain.
- 2 drops of eucalyptus
- 4 drops of rosemary
- 8 drops of peppermint
- 2 drop of lavender
- 2 drops of jasmine
- 1/2 teaspoon (or 1 capsule) vitamin E
- 2 tablespoons of grapeseed oil (carrier)
- 2 tablespoon beeswax, grated
- 1/2 cup shea butter
Put the beeswax, Shea butter and grape seed oil in a double boiler. Warm gradually on low heat till the wax and the butter melt. Stir thoroughly to mix all the lipids. Remove the carrier blend from heat and add vitamin E oil to it. Allow, the mixture to cool for a minute and then add the essential oils to it. Give it a good stir again and then pour into a dark glass bottle and store in a dark place.
Recipe 2 – Have A Warm Footbath
Often, tension headaches are caused by abnormal blood flow to the scalp and the head. Dilating the blood vessels in the feet helps to regulate blood circulation and minimize congestion all over the body. Plus, the relaxing effect of a foot soak can go a long way in treating tension headaches brought on by physical and mental stress. Here is how to have a pain relieving footbath:
- Boil water in a kettle to refill the bath if it cools down.
- Boil a kettle full of water to fill your bath.
- Fill nearly 60 percent of your basin with hot water (hot to touch but not scalding hot).
- Make a blend with 1 tsp carrier oils of your choice and 1 drop each of lavender, rosemary and ginger essential oils along with 2 drops of peppermint essential oil.
- Sit on a chair and set your feet in the basin, ensuring that the water covers the ankles. Have some hot water handy so as to maintain the temperature of the water.
A hint: Add some sand/rice grains in the footbath and rub your feet on the grains settled at the bottom of the basin to give yourself a gentle feet massage.
Recipe 3 – Use Epsom Salt
Scientific studies have pointed out that magnesium deficiency could be a likely cause of stress and tension headaches. While getting the warmth of the bath water that in itself is rich in magnesium and sodium, I get the opportunity to add essential oils of my choice to the bath water. Keeping that in mind, here is an essential oil bath recipe that can help in relieving tension headaches:
- 3 cups Epsom Salt
- 1/2 cup baking soda
- 2 drops of rosemary
- 2 drops of eucalyptus
- 6 drops of peppermint
- 1 drop of holy/sweet basil
- 4 drops lemon balm
- 8 drops lavender
Mix baking soda and Epsom salt together in a bowl using a wooden spoon. Add the essential oils and stir until they are completely blended. Store mixture in a dark glass bottle and use just one cup of the blend per bath.
Recipe 4 – Hot/cold compress for tension headaches
According to the National Headache Foundation, a warm compress works well for tension headaches because the heat helps to open the blood vessels and improves circulation to the scalp and other tender areas. However, this isn’t so much a rule as it is a matter of personal preference. Also, the season will impact both your choice and its outcome. So, go with your instincts on this one.
If you are not sure, you may want to try alternate hot and cold treatment to see which one works best for you. Another way is to use a cold compress on the temples and the forehead and use a warm compress on the back of the head, the neck and the upper shoulders. This is what you will need:
For the hot compress:
- A medium sized bowl filled with hot water (hot to touch but not boiling hot)
- 2 tbsp Epsom salt
- ½ tsp carrier oil of your choice
- 3 drops each of sweet marjoram and sandalwood
- 2 drops eucalyptus
For the cold compress:
- A medium sized bowl half filled with water and ice cubes
- 1 tbsp sea salt/ Himalayan pink salt
- ½ tsp carrier oil
- 3 drops each of peppermint and lemon balm
- 2 drops roman chamomile
Mix the essential oils with the carrier and add the blend to the hot/cold water. Soak a small towel in the water, wring and then place around your forehead, in such a way that it covers your temples. Keep the soaked towel on your forehead till it gets to room temperature, repeat. Also, use the compress on the back of the head and the neck.
Another way to do this is to add the essential oil blend and the salt (Epsom or sea salt) to 2 cups of water. Soak a face wash cloth in the water, wring lightly and place on the forehead. Then, place the heating pad on it for a warm compress or a bag of frozen peas for a cold compress.
Recipe 5 – Blend to get more from your head massage
Few therapeutic approaches help as much as head massage for relieving tension headaches. Yes, it feels amazing if you can get somebody to give you a relaxing head massage but self-massage is no less effective. Given below are the ingredients for the massage blend as well as 3 massage techniques. You will need:
- 60 ml carrier oil
- 30 drops peppermint
- 10 drops each of eucalyptus and rosemary
- 5 drops each of bergamot and coriander
Mix the oils and store in a dark colored glass bottle. To use, apply 2-3 drops of the oil across the forehead, covering the temples on both sides.
- Use your finger tips for the forehead massage; start at the center of your forehead, in between the eyebrows and move your fingers outwards towards the temples. Press the soft area just below the skull bone and to the sides of the forehead. Apply firm downward pressure and hold for a few seconds. Then, use circular strokes to ease the tension in the area.
- Next, place your hands on the sides of your face such that your palms are next to your cheek bones and your fingers reach up to the temples. Press downwards firmly and then move your hands upwards, pulling the muscles around the center of the face. This helps to release the tension in the jaws.
- Use both hands to massage the back of your neck, working on the muscles and nerves next to the spine. Do not put pressure on the spine. Move your hands in upward strokes and don’t just stop at the neck but also massage the sub occipital muscles that cover the upper neck and the area just above your hairline at the back of your head.
Recipe 6 – Essential oil blend for ocular migraine
- 50 ml carrier oil
- 3 drops each frankincense and lavender
- 1 drop sandalwood
- 2 drops roman chamomile
Mix the blend and store in an amber glass bottle. To use, pour a drop on your index finger and apply around the orbit of the eye that gets affected from retinal migraine. Use this blend as a preventative measure once a day. Although this blend will not cure ocular migraine, it will help to reduce the duration of the vision disturbance and the frequency of the episodes.
Also, use the head massage blend on the occipital area in the back of the head. This is the area at the back of the head that runs from one ear to the other. Use the head massage blend once a day, preferably at night in this area. Again, this is a preventative measure. Use these blends every week for five days and then take a break for 2 days or use them for 3 weeks continuously and then take a break for 1 week.
Recipe 7 – Day and night diffuser blend for tension headaches
- For the day blend, use 3 drops rosemary, 2 drops sweet marjoram, 3 drops bergamot in your diffuser
- For the night blend use 3 drops lemon balm, 4 drops lavender and 2 drops coriander/sandalwood in your diffuser.
Natural Treatment / Therapies For Tension Headaches
1. Food and herbs: Vitamin E is a natural vasodilator hence it can help to keep tension headaches away. However, it is an oil soluble vitamin, which means there is always the risk of overdoing things with a supplement.
So, instead of popping a pill, opt for food items that are rich in the micronutrient such as avocados, almonds and wheat germ. Herbs such as feverfew, butterbur and white willow bark are also known to help with headaches. Of these three, willow bark is a source of natural salicylates (nature’s very own aspirin), so go slow on it.
2. Yoga: Neck and shoulder strain are often the cause of tension headaches, yoga helps to enhance flexibility of the muscles, ligaments and the tendons in the area. Particularly, poses like the tadasana, (the mountain pose), the gomukhasana, the garudasana and the setu bandhasana (the bridge pose) can condition the muscles in the neck and the shoulders and help to prevent tension headaches.
3. Supplements: Melatonin and magnesium supplements help to alleviate most types of headaches because they promote restful sleep and keep your blood pressure in check. Also, they help to lower stress levels, so in effect, they help to prevent most of the common causes of tension headaches. Coenzyme Q 10 is also often recommended for tension headaches.
4. Infusions: Chamomile, ginger, basil or a combination of cumin and coriander seeds can be used to make relaxing infusions that help to prevent and treat tension headaches. These natural substances help to curb inflammation and are also effective against allergies and nasal issues that may trigger tension headaches.
Above all, taking some time out to enjoy the soothing warmth of ginger or chamomile tea often proves to be the only de-stressing activity needed to stop a tension headache in its tracks.
5. Acupressure: When you want quick relief from a tension headache, a combination of reflexology and aromatherapy can come to your rescue. Use a blend of lavender, eucalyptus and peppermint (3 drops each) mixed with 10 ml carrier oil for pressure point stimulation to ease headaches. You are going for 3 points; use only a drop of the blend on each point:
- The LI-4 point or union point, which is located in the web in between your thumb and index finger. Feel along the web in between the two digits; the pressure point is right above the point at which the two bones meet. Work on the union points on both hands to cover pain that is felt all across the forehead.
- The drilling bamboo points, which lie right below the inner edge of your eyebrows, at the point where the bridge of the nose meets the ridge of the eyebrow. If eye strain or fatigue has led to your tension headaches, stimulating these points will certainly help.
- The LV-3 point, which is located on the upper side of the foot in the webbing in between the big toe and the second toe. Feel along the webbing till you come to the point where the bones of both toes intersect, the LV-3 point is about one thumb width above this point of intersection.
In addition to this, biofeedback, cognitive behavioral therapy, music therapy, chiropractic manipulation and alignment of the spine and acupuncture can also help to alleviate chronic tension headaches.
Tension Headache vs. Migraine
While tension headaches are very common with nearly 80% of the people suffering from them at least once every year, migraines are rare, with less than 20% of the people suffering from the condition. That said, think of migraine as the opposite of a tension headache.
While there are some common points, the causes, intensity, quality and location of the pain and other symptoms can vary significantly. The important thing to know here is that chronic tension headaches, if not controlled in time, can lead to migraines.
Causes and triggers: Tension headaches are brought on by stress, be it mental or physical. As I explained earlier, this is a musculoskeletal condition that is triggered by the contraction of the muscles, which constricts the blood vessels and lowers blood circulation to the scalp and surrounding areas.
In contrast, a migraine is caused by abnormal neurological activity which gets triggered due to certain factors. It has got nothing to do with muscles or mental fatigue. That said, common migraine triggers include hormonal imbalance, menopause, alcohol and contraceptives.
The location of the pain: Unlike tension headache that create a band of pain around the head, migraines are a one-sided affair. Usually, the pain is intense on one side of the head, but it can radiate to the other side.
Duration and intensity of the pain: From 30 minutes to a whopping 7 days, that is how long tension headaches can last but for most people a few hours of nagging pain is what the condition springs on them.
Migraine headaches can last between a few hours and a few days. While tension headaches lead to diffuse and mild to moderate pain, a migraine causes throbbing and intense pain that can be debilitating. So, while most people who have a tension headache can go about their day as usual, a migraine can make it hard to do anything else but lie down in a dark corner.
Other symptoms: Vision disturbances, nausea, vomiting are often experienced with the one-sided pain of migraine. But there is no muscle stiffness, neck pain, shoulder pain or jaw tenderness associated with the condition. A migraine often causes intense pain behind the eyes and inside the head and soreness around the temples. The condition also leads to light and sound sensitivity in some individuals.
Treatment: While vasodilation works for tension headaches since improving circulation eases muscle tension and contraction, the throbbing pain of migraine responds to vasoconstriction. In addition, a cold compress, anti-nausea medication, OTC pain killers, relaxation techniques, lying down in a dark and quiet room can all help with migraine headaches.
How To Stop Tension Headaches?
The best way to stop tension headaches is to prevent the triggers and to deal with them before they create trouble. Keeping a headache diary can help you to identify and to keep track of the triggers. Your headache diary should include information such as:
- Duration of pain- start and stop time
- Location of pain
- Intensity of pain
- Forewarning if any
- Other symptoms if any
- Stress levels on that day
- Foods eaten few hours prior to the episode
- Sleep pattern and quality the night before
- Activity before episode
- Last time you moved about before the headache
You will need to record information on 5-10 headache episodes before a pattern emerges. The idea is to prevent the triggers and if that cannot be done, to control their detrimental effects. For instance, if lack of sleep is usually the trigger for you, a quick rejuvenating nap on a day when you have had less than your regular amount of sleep can help to keep muscle tension and stress away.
Self-care is essential for battling tension and the headaches associated with it. Many of us don’t find enough time to care for ourselves. Remember, the cost of not caring for yourself is way too much. When you are stressed, you are of no use to anyone. Use the essential oil recipes mentioned above and break the habit of doing too much. Take 2-5 minute breaks to calm and center yourself. This really works!