In just minutes a day, you can relieve your pain.

Taking a painkiller now and then may not be a problem if you have occasional tension headaches. But it’s a different story if you frequently get that steady ache on both sides of your head—you probably know the feeling…it’s a little like your head is being squeezed in a vise! With regular use, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Motrin) can lead to stomach problems and other side effects, while acetaminophen (Tylenol) can put the health of your liver at risk.

There is also the trap of getting “rebound” headaches—a common complication when a frequent headache sufferer overuses medication to fight the constant pain.

A missing link: In the quest to quell the pain of tension-type headaches, one crucial point often gets overlooked—up to 88% of these headaches are believed to be caused by stress. On top of that, nearly half of people suffering from chronic tension-type headaches also have depression or anxiety disorders, which painkillers don’t treat.

Many doctors prescribe amitriptyline (Elavil), a tricyclic antidepressant, to boost mood and help regulate pain signals. This drug helps some people with tension-type headaches, but it, like other medication, has its share of bothersome side effects—dizziness, drowsiness and dry mouth, to name just a few. What’s the answer?


To test how tension-type headache sufferers would respond to a drug versus a nondrug approach, researchers gave 98 people with frequent or chronic tension-type headaches the choice of using amitriptyline or trying “hypnotic-relaxation therapy”—a technique that induces a deeply relaxed, focused state.

The results, published in the journal Headache, showed that the headache sufferers, who met with therapists to learn hypnotic relaxation, not only preferred this technique over the medication but also found it far more effective because it works as both a treatment and preventive. Specifically, after up to a year of follow-up, 74% of patients in the hypnotic-relaxation group had a 50% reduction in headache frequency, compared with 58% of patients in the amitriptyline group.

Even though this study did not include painkillers such as NSAIDs, researchers believe that hypnotic relaxation offers benefits over those medications, too. For example, with hypnotic relaxation, headache sufferers are not putting themselves at risk for the rebound headaches that so often occur with frequent use of painkilling medication.

So what does this research mean for the average sufferer of tension-type headaches? Anyone can use hypnotic relaxation. People with tension headaches who try the technique are usually surprised by the simplicity of it. In fact, it takes just a few minutes to learn the progressive muscle relaxation and focused breathing exercises underlying the technique. How to begin…*

  • Find a quiet, private space that’s distraction free. Turn off your cell phone.
  • Get comfortable on a chair or couch (sitting or lying down).
  • Close your eyes and empty your mind of thoughts (as much as possible). When intrusive thoughts return, simply acknowledge them and allow them to “drift away.”
  • Breathe slowly and deeply, visualizing tension leaving your body with each exhale. Imagine vitality entering your body with each inhale.
  • Progressively relax your body’s major muscle groups, beginning with your toes and then moving through the calves, thighs, hips, stomach, hands, arms, shoulders, neck, face and head. Stay in this relaxed state for a number of minutes, noticing the rising and falling of your chest. Now, imagine that you are at the top of a flight of 10 steps. Tell yourself that you are going to walk down the steps and count backward from 10 as you picture yourself descending each step. Feel yourself becoming more relaxed with each step.

How to create a hypnotic trance: Your next task is to self-induce a hypnotic trance using what is known as a “safe-place technique.”

What to do: With your eyes closed and while breathing deeply, mentally take yourself to a place that feels calm and safe. This could be a quiet forest, a sunny beach or a serene mountaintop.What do you see, smell, hear and taste? How do you feel in this place? Engage all your senses. After a few minutes, begin repeating suggestions to yourself that reinforce a sense of well-being and lack of pain in your head.

These suggestions may include statements such as: The muscles in my head and neck are completely relaxed…my head is completely pain-free. The entire relaxation session takes only about 10 minutes. Ideally, headache sufferers should use hypnotic relaxation three times daily to guard against stressors that trigger tension-type headaches…it can also be used as soon as a headache starts to develop so the sufferer can quickly gain control over the pain. If pain medication is still needed, hypnotic relaxation will likely allow for a reduced dose.

Too Much Tension…

Up to 80% of Americans suffer from occasional tension-type headaches. About 3% struggle with these headaches almost daily.

What’s causing so many tension headaches?

While the reasons vary depending on the individual, tension headaches are usually (but not always) due to tight muscles in the back of the neck and scalp. Fatigue, anxiety and emotional stress (including depression) commonly are linked to the muscle tension that can lead to these headaches.

Specific stressful situations that may trigger tension headaches include conflict at home…having too many responsibilities…dealing with a chronic illness…not getting sufficient sleep…and facing tight deadlines.

*If you have difficulty with this technique, consult a trained hypnotherapist who is also a medical doctor or psychologist.