You had a rough day at work and got stuck in traffic on the way home, and suddenly your head starts pounding.
Stress headaches can be debilitating in the moment, but you don’t have to suffer indefinitely.
If you’re struggling with stress, you’re not alone. More than one-quarter of adults in the United States reported they’re too stressed out to function, according to a recent survey from the American Psychological Association.
Can stress cause headaches? Yes, in fact, the most common type of primary headache is a tension headache, also referred to as a muscle tension headache or stress headache, according to Harvard Health. Tension headaches may be episodic, meaning that they occur less than 15 days a month; if they occur more than 15 days a month for more than three months in a row, they are called chronic tension headaches, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Here, experts break down how to relieve a stress headache and how to help prevent one from happening in the first place.
How does stress cause headaches?
Stress triggers the “fight-or-flight” response that then stimulates physical changes that can contribute to headaches. These include the following:
- Neck, shoulder, scalp, face and jaw muscles tensing
- Teeth grinding
- Problems with sleeping
- Meal skipping that imbalance blood sugar levels
Emotional stressors like depression and anxiety, as well as physical stressors, like prolonged sitting with poor posture or straining the eyes, can also cause stress headaches. Stress headaches are most common in adults, more in women than men, and in older teens, according to the National Library of Medicine. People with heightened sensitivity to pain may be more likely to experience stress headaches, Mayo Clinic experts note.
Stress headache symptoms
The stress headache area is typically around the upper part of the head or localized to the upper sides or front of the head. The pain is usually mild to moderate and feels like a wide belt is tightening around the head or as if both sides of the head are squeezed together. It may also feel like constant pressure to the front of the face or to the head or neck. There may also be light and sound sensitivity, but no auras as with migraines, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Stress headache pain is generally mild or moderate, not severe or throbbing. It may be on one or both sides of the head. In a recent study of over 2,000 medical students that was published in the journal Neurology India, those who experienced both