Are Stress & Headaches the New Bonnie & Clyde?
According to the National Institute of Health, almost everyone has had a headache before. It’s a major reason people miss days at work or school or visit the doctor.Over 30 million people experience them and about 20% have them recurrently. Do you get a headache just thinking about having a headache? Well don’t stress yourself out about it because a new study is showing that people who stress more also have more headaches. German researchers are concluding that it doesn’t matter which came first, the chicken or the egg because stress and headaches come hand in hand. For several Americans, stress and headaches have become the new Bonnie and Clyde.
Researchers at the University Hospital of Duisburg-Essen in Germany interviewed 5,159 people between the ages of 21 to 71 four times a year for two years, asking them about their stress levels and the number of headaches they’ve experienced. Their study found that people who reported headaches had more stress compared to those who never reported headaches.
“These results show that this is a problem for everyone who suffers from headaches and emphasize the importance of stress management approaches for people with migraine and those who treat them,” study author Dr. Sara H. Schramm said in a press release. “The results add weight to the concept that stress can be a factor contributing to the onset of headache disorders, that it accelerates the progression to chronic headache, exacerbates headache episodes, and that the headache experience itself can serve as a stressor.”
It is important to identify sources of chronic stress, and use strategies directed toward eliminating or modifying stress, including meditation, deep breathing exercises and muscle relaxation techniques. These can be very effective in reducing the frequency of all types of headaches.
Although much about the cause of headaches isn’t understood, genetics and environmental factors appear to play a role. Whats more important is that those who experience headaches keep a log of how often they happen, how long they last and what they were doing prior to onset. Here are some common headache triggers to be aware of:
- Hormonal changes in women. Fluctuations in estrogen seem to trigger headaches in many women as seen before and after menstruation. Also hormonal medications, such as oral contraceptives and hormone replacement therapy, can worsen headaches.
- Foods. Aged cheeses and banana peels (stringy part) high in tyramine, salty foods cause dehydration, skipping meals or fasting also can trigger attacks. Hot dogs, bacon and lunch meats high in nitrates/nitrites (preservatives) dilate blood vessels.
- Food additives. The sweetener aspartame and the preservative monosodium glutamate, found in many foods, may trigger migraines.
- Drinks. Alcohol causes dehydration, especially those with sulfites used as preservatives as in red wine, and highly caffeinated beverages may trigger. Having too much or too little, especially for those who drink 2-3 cups daily.
- Stress. Stress at work or home can cause migraines.
- Sensory stimuli. Bright lights and sun glare can induce migraines, as can loud sounds. Unusual smells — including perfume, paint thinner, secondhand smoke and others — can trigger migraines in some people.
- Changes in wake-sleep pattern. Missing sleep or getting too much sleep may trigger migraines in some people, as can jet lag.
- Intense physical exertion, including sexual activity, may provoke migraines.
- Changes in the environment. A change of weather or barometric pressure can prompt a migraine.
What can people do to alleviate a headache once they have one?
The best thing you can do is to prevent headaches from happening by avoiding triggers. When that is unknown or unavoidable the most common treatments for headaches are rest and over the counter pain relievers. These include aspirin, acetaminophen (i.e. Tylenol), ibuprofen (i.e. Motrin) and naproxen (i.e. Aleve). But caution, as benign as these may seem, their use just like any other medication has its risks and side effects and should never be used chronically without consulting a health care provider. For those with severe headaches, other prescription medication may be helpful including Tricyclic antidepressants, such as amitriptyline, and nortiptyline; Antiepileptic drugs such as valproic acid, gabapentin and topiramate; and Beta blockers such as propranolol. Other non-medicinal things you can do include:
- Put a heat pack or ice pack on your head or neck
- Get enough rest or sleep
- Go to bed and get up the same time every day.
- Take time away from things that are stressful such as taking some me time or short vacay.
- Do not skip breakfast. Fasting is a common cause of headaches.
- Get regular exercise of all types. Yoga, meditation and relaxation therapy can also relieve headaches.
- See your dentist. They can help diagnose and treat headaches related to bruxism (grinding teeth at night) and temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder. Treatment includes stretching the jaw, hot or cold packs, stress reduction and bite guards.