How Stress Contributes to Headaches

As if stress weren’t bad enough on its own, it can both trigger and worsen headaches.

For many headaches, the cause is simple: You’re probably just stressed.

Whether from an over-packed to-do list, demanding job, relationship issues or growing pile of bills — or any other number of nerve-wracking scenarios — stress is the most likely cause behind the most common type of headache, the tension headache (which, by the way, aptly goes by the nickname “stress headache”).

This everyday feeling can bring on headaches in a variety of ways. First, when people are stressed, they often tighten their neck and shoulders. Tense muscles in the back of the neck and even in the scalp can cause the “vice-like” compression many people use to describe stress-related headaches. Also, when under stress, many people clench their jaws and/or grind their teeth, both of which can trigger headaches all on their own. Lastly, anxiety is a common culprit of restless nights, and insomnia is a risk factor for headaches and migraines alike.

What’s more, no matter your headache type, stress can both worsen and prolong your symptoms. According to recent research, every 10 percent increase in people’s stress levels causes them to experience tension headaches 6.3 percent more days/month and migraines 4.3 percent more often.  1

While relaxation therapies and simply cutting down on the stress in your life can help to reduce the occurrence of tension headaches, chronic tension headaches may be indicative of something bigger for some, such as anxiety or depression. Consult a doctor to discuss and learn more about your headaches.

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1. Association between Stress and Headache Frequency (S41.007). Sara Schramm, Susanne Moebus, Nils Lehmann, Ursula Galli, Mark Obermann, Eva Bock, Min-Suk Yoon, H. Diener,and Zaza Katsarava http://www.neurology.org/content/82/10_Supplement/S41.007

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