Antidepressants for tension headaches

Antidepressant medicines, which are usually used to treat depression, can be effective in preventing chronic tension headaches. Antidepressants have some pain-relieving properties and may reduce how often headaches occur and how long they last. Antidepressants are also used to improve sleep problems.

Tricyclic antidepressants, such as amitriptyline, are the antidepressants used most often to reduce the frequency or duration of tension headaches.

Medicines to prevent tension headaches have not been well studied. The best evidence is for amitriptyline.1 It has been proved to reduce how often tension headaches occur and how long they last.2 If you do not respond well to amitriptyline, you may try other tricyclic antidepressants, although they may not work as well to relieve your headache.

Side effects of tricyclic antidepressants include:

  • Dry mouth.
  • Constipation.
  • Blurred vision.
  • Inability to urinate.
  • Weight gain.
  • Low blood pressure when you stand up quickly.

Other antidepressants used to prevent tension headaches include mirtazapine (Remeron) and venlafaxine (Effexor).

FDA Advisory. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued an advisory on antidepressant medicines and the risk of suicide. The FDA does not recommend that people stop using these medicines. Instead, a person taking antidepressants should be watched for warning signs of suicide. This is especially important at the beginning of treatment or when the doses are changed.

Citations

  1. Loder E, Rizzoli P (2008). Tension-type headache. BMJ, 336(7635): 88–92.
  2. Silver N (2006). Headache (chronic tension-type), search date October 2005. Online version of Clinical Evidence (15).

Last Updated: July 22, 2009

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