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Headaches and Stress: How Are They Connected?

Not All Headaches Are Stress-Related--Or Are They?

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Updated October 15, 2012

Headaches and Stress: How Are They Connected?

Most headaches hinge on stress.

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Are Headaches Caused By Stress?

Many people may wonder if headaches are the direct result of stress. The answer is yes, no, and maybe. There are three different types of headaches, two of which are not caused primarily by stress, and one that may be:

  • Migraine Headaches: Headaches associated with migraines can be severe and even debilitating, and can last from 4 to 72 hours. These headaches are usually on one side of the head (unilateral), and worsen with daily activities like walking around. There can be nausea or sensitivity to light and sound involved, and sometimes an aura. They are not thought to be directly caused by stress—sort of. While the National Headache Foundation (NHF) states that stress is not a migraine trigger, headache expert Teri Robert clarifies by saying, “Stress alone doesn't trigger Migraines but it does make us more susceptible to our triggers.” So, in a way, stress increases Migraines, but isn’t mentioned as a direct cause.
  • Secondary Headaches: This is the umbrella under which fall all headaches that are caused by more serious conditions such as brain tumors and strokes. They are also not directly caused by stress. (Although, in the same way that stress makes us more susceptible to illness, and those illnesses can cause headaches, stress is indirectly related to secondary headaches.)
  • Tension Headaches: These headaches, also called “stress headaches”, are experienced periodically by more than one-third of adults. They involve both sides of the head and generally feel like a tightness in the forehead or back of the neck. They’re not generally debilitating; people with tension headaches can normally go about their regular activities. Those who experience them usually don’t have them more than once or twice a month, to varying degrees. And, as the name suggests, they are thought to be directly caused by stress.

Managing and Preventing Headaches

Because the majority of headaches experienced by adults are tension headaches, and these headaches are caused (at least in part) by stress, a great proportion of these headaches can be avoided with effective stress management techniques. Additionally, because stress can make Migraine sufferers more susceptible to their Migraine triggers, stress relief techniques can help avoid many of these severe headaches as well. And, finally, because stress management techniques can strengthen the immune system (or keep it from being weakened by stress), those who practice regular stress management techniques can avoid at least some potential secondary headaches by avoiding the health conditions that cause them.

The following stress relievers can help for different types of stress, to provide an overall framework of effective stress relief for various lifestyles:

When To See A Doctor

Aside from the use of stress management techniques, many people find that over-the-counter stress relievers are also very helpful. And because some headaches can be associated with more serious health conditions, it’s important to see a doctor if you have severe headaches or if you just suspect that something may be significantly wrong.

(Scroll down for more resources on stress management and your health.)

Sources:

Fumal A, Schoenen J. Tension-type headache: current research and clinical management. Lancet Neurology. January, 2008.

Lee, Dennis, M.D. Headache Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment on MedicineNet.com. 2007

Schwartz BS, Stewart WF, Simon D, Lipton RB. Epidemiology of tension-type headache.. JAMA, February, 1998.

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