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How to avoid tension headaches over the festive season

Woman with Christmas decorations with a headache

Is December making your head hurt? If tension headaches have become a Christmas tradition in your household, finding your triggers and taking a few of GP Dawn Harper’s simple precautions could help see you through without pain.

The most common headache is probably the tension-type. Sadly, with all the stress of Christmas, it’s something I see frequently in surgery at this time of year.

Typically, you’ll feel it around both sides of your head and it may even give a feeling of pressure behind the eyeballs. Although these headaches usually aren’t severe enough to stop you getting on with your life, they certainly aren’t pleasant, and may last anything from half an hour to several days. Most of us will experience a tension headache at some point, so here are my top tips on what you can do to stop them interfering with your enjoyment this festive season.

Take some preventive measures

Stress and anxiety are two of the obvious triggers, so it goes without saying that addressing these has to be a priority. But there are other triggers, which you may not previously have considered. Noise may make things worse and so can certain smells.

Of course, at this busy time of year you may be spending a lot of time in the kitchen preparing food. If you notice some smells are setting you off, try to do your food preparation at times when you’re feeling well rested. Tiredness is often a factor in the development of tension headaches, so exposing yourself to strong smells when you’re exhausted is likely to increase your risk of succumbing. Make sure you’re well hydrated, too, as this is another factor.

The same goes for missing meals and being physically inactive, so be sure to eat and exercise regularly. Do beware of bright sunlight when you go out, however – exposure to bright lights, and subsequent squinting, may provoke a tension headache, so always wear sunglasses when out and about on bright sunny days.

Try to factor some relaxation techniques into your diary, too. I know every minute can be precious during the Christmas period, but taking some time out to do some yoga or have a massage could make a real difference. In fact, yoga can help on two levels: it’s excellent for relaxation, but it’s also great for good posture, which in itself helps to prevent tension headaches.

Use available medication wisely

Sometimes, applying a cool flannel to your forehead or a warm one to the back of your neck may be enough to give you relief. If you still struggle, simple painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen should be enough to deal with the pain, but beware of overuse. Even just 10 days of taking painkillers regularly could lead to what we call analgesic headaches. Paradoxically, the very drugs we take to relieve headaches can cause them when they’re taken long term. If you’re concerned this may have happened to you, speak to your doctor, who will be able to advise you on how to wean yourself off your medicines.

If your headaches are occurring frequently, a course of up to 10 sessions of acupuncture over a few weeks may help. And if you’re still struggling, talk to your GP about whether it would be suitable for you to try an old-fashioned type of antidepressant that can be an effective treatment for tension headaches. It won’t relieve the pain immediately like a painkiller, but if taken every day, it can work well to prevent the headaches occurring, as well as improving sleep.

Here’s to a headache-free Christmas period for us all.

Date modified: 10 December 2021
First published: Dec 2021


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