Its trivial-sounding name seems to imply that the problem is "just stress"...but the viselike pain of a tension headache can make you truly miserable and significantly disrupt your day. Popping a painkiller is not a great solution because such drugs can have nasty side effects, including increased risk for gastrointestinal bleeding, blood pressure problems and liver or kidney damage.

So what can you take when a tension headache grabs hold? Integrative neurologist Trupti Gokani, MD, director of the North Shore Headache Clinic in Highland Park, Illinois, suggested trying any or all of the following options. Products are available at health-food stores and/or online. Consider taking…

  • A few bites of food or a big drink of water. If hunger or dehydration is triggering your headache, the pain may disappear once you assuage your body's basic needs. Just about any healthful food will do...but stay away from known headache triggers such as processed meats, aged cheeses, red wine and anything with monosodium glutamate, Dr. Gokani said.
  • Butterbur supplements. Though various supplements may prevent headaches when taken regularly, Dr. Gokani said that butterbur works best to help halt a headache you already have. This anti-inflammatory herb should be taken as soon as you feel the pain coming on. Try the brand Petadolex (, which contains a purified form of butterbur free from liver-damaging pyrrolizidine alkaloids. Or consider HAessentials by Pure Balance, a product Dr. Gokani helped develop, which contains Petadolex and other headache-relieving ingredients (available at

Caution: Do not use butterbur if you are pregnant or have liver disease.

  • Some whiffs of an aromatherapy remedy. Finding the right scent may require some experimentation, Dr. Gokani said, because an aroma that soothes pain for one person can irritate another.

Options to try: Essential oil of lavender... basil...or clary sage.

To use: Sprinkle three drops of the desired essential oil onto a tissue or handkerchief and take a sniff every few minutes...or sprinkle three drops onto a hot or cold compress and apply to your forehead until the pain lets up.

  • A moment to ask yourself why you have this headache. A tension headache usually has an underlying trigger, Dr. Gokani noted.

Consider: Do you need a break from your computer screen? Are you working in a poorly lit room? Might a short walk or a chat with a friend help relieve whatever stress you're under? Once you identify the root problem and take action to rectify it, your pain should ease up.

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