Treatment of Stress Headaches

Stress headaches are the most common type of headache experienced by headache sufferers. Commonly referred to as tension headaches, they may appear episodically (less than 15 days per month) or chronically (more than 15 days per month). Though these headaches are not as painful as other categories, the pain and discomfort of a stress headache can still debilitate headache sufferers.

What are Stress Headaches?

Stress headaches are usually described by patients as a mild to moderate pain, pressure or tightness starting around the front or back of the head and travelling down the neck. Generally associated with head, scalp, back and neck muscle tension, stress headaches are often a reaction to the events of daily life. This may include work, home or school-related stress. The duration of these headaches can last from just 30 minutes to several days in length. Episodic stress headaches usually begin later in the day, although it is possible for a headache to begin in the morning. Rather than being the result of an inherited trait or sign of a greater physical problem, there is no specific cause of stress headaches. Several factors may contribute to tension headaches including:

  • Mental or emotional stress (including stress caused by mental disorders such as depression or anxiety)
  • Bad posture or unusual physical positions
  • Inadequate sleep
  • Overexertion and fatigue
  • Hunger or dehydration

While most stress headaches are connected with muscle tension, some people experience stress headaches without any known cause. Fortunately, stress headaches are rarely a sign of more severe physical problems.

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What are Stress Headache Triggers?

Unlike some categories of headaches, there are no specific triggers for stress headaches. Instead, there is a broad range of potential triggers which may include the following:

  • Oncoming deadlines such as assignments at work or tests at school
  • Loneliness and isolation
  • A sudden change of environment
  • Losing a job or starting a new job
  • Personal/family problems
  • Lack of sleep or a disruption in normal sleep patterns
  • Perfectionism or work very hard for an impossible goal
  • Being overweight or out-of-shape
  • Overextending one’s self (having too many errands and activities to coordinate)

As a general rule, episodic tension headaches are triggered by built-up stress and anxiety. Chronic tension headaches are the result of daily stress over a prolonged period of time.

What are the symptoms of stress headaches?

After a stress headache is triggered, some of the symptoms experienced by headache sufferers may include:

  • Mild or moderate pain (sometimes pressure) affecting the top, sides or front of the head
  • Chronic fatigue and/or exhaustion
  • Irritability
  • Sensitivity to light and/or noise
  • Difficulty falling asleep or having periods of sound rest
  • Inability to focus
  • General muscle aches

It is worth noting most stress headaches happen later in the day (which may be helpful in properly diagnosing a stress headache versus another type of headache). The symptoms of stress headaches are also much less severe than cluster headaches or other headache categories.

Types of Stress Headaches

Stress headaches are categorized and differentiated based on the duration of the headaches sufferers experience:

  • Episodic: Stress headaches occur fewer than 15 times per month or only appear episodically, i.e. on an irregular basis
  • Chronic: Stress headaches occur more than fifteen days per month or happen chronically, i.e. on a daily basis

Keeping track of headache frequency may allow sufferers to more properly diagnose the type of headache they are experiencing.

Stress Headache Risk Factors

While some categories of headaches have many associated risk factors (including genetics), there are only two primary risk factors associated with tension headaches:

  1. Gender. According to the Mayo Clinic, 90% of women experience tension headaches while only 70% of men experience them.
  2. Age. Tension headaches appear to peak around the age of 40. (However, it is worth noting a person of any age can get one of these headaches).

Other risk factors include the headache triggers listed above.

Treatment Options

As stress headaches do not have any specific cause and a tension headache may appear without prior warning, treating these headaches will primarily be about avoiding stress and addressing symptoms as they occur.

Prevention

In order to prevent tension type headaches from occurring, patients should try the following:

  • Avoiding triggers (or minimizing them). This also requires patients to learn triggers and how to recognize them.
  • Managing stress and learning to relax.
  • Attempting Biofeedback to identify and reduce stress and tension as it builds up, thus addressing allowing the patient to relieve stress before a headache occurs.
  • Taking prescribed medications including pain relievers, muscle relaxants, antidepressants, and other medications recommended by a physician.

Immediate treatment

Medication is the most common (and effective) way to treat the immediate symptoms of a stress headache. When combined with addressing the cause of the stress headache, a pain reliever can effectively manage stress.
Over-the-counter medication is commonly used for mild stress headaches. Generally, this means aspirin or acetaminophen. For intense or more severe stress headaches, a stronger pain reliever such as Migralex should be used. Medications such as Migralex work to increase blood flow, relax muscles and address all symptoms of stress headaches, making them an ideal solution for immediate treatment needs.

Long-Term Treatment

Though there is no specific cause of stress headaches, identifying the contributing factors to the source of the headaches may allow an individual to stop experiencing headaches in the long term. As with prevention, the best way to address the long-term problem of stress headaches is to identify potential causes of stress and resolve them. A doctor, psychologist or even a good friend can be enough to work on fixing the long-term roots of similar tension headaches.
While very common, stress headaches are rarely fatal or any cause for serious medical alarm. However, if a headache sufferer feels he or she is experiencing stress headaches too frequently or cannot alleviate stress related symptoms, he or she should seek the counsel of a physician as soon as possible. This will allow both physician and patient to rule out serious health complications and properly diagnose the cause of the headaches.

Stress Headache Resources