Apr 122004
Authors: Lindsay Robinson

Life. Stress. Headaches.

The three sometimes seem to be interconnected. Life can be

stressful. Stress can cause headaches.

Tension-type is the most common headache, caused by muscle

tension in the neck, scalp and shoulders. These headaches are

characterized by a nagging pain in the back of the head where the

neck and skull meet.

These headaches can be triggered both by physical stress, such

as eye strain or bad posture, and emotional stress.

“When we perceive something as stressful or worrisome, we

activate our fight or flight response, and one of the things that

happens is generalized muscle tenseness, which, over time, can

create muscle pain, which sometimes leads to headaches,” said

Jenifer Thomas, a graduate student assistant with the University

Counseling Center’s Stress Management Program.

According to www.headache-help.org, 70 to 90 percent of people

suffer from tension headaches occasionally.

Suzanne Simons, executive director of the National Headache

Foundation, said sometimes tension headaches are caused by a sort

of stress “let-down,” when people finally get a break from


“Some people work through stress really well and a lot of times

people make it through the week, and then on the weekends they get

headaches,” Simons said.

Weekend tension headaches can also be triggered by staying out

late or sleeping in later than is normal during the week, because

this strays from the sleep cycle the body is used to.

Most experts advise against taking over-the-counter medication

regularly to combat tension headaches.

Gerald McIntosh of the Center for Neuro Rehabilitation Services

in Fort Collins, said taking pain medication on a regular basis can

cause chronic daily headaches and medicine-rebound headaches.

“When the medicine wears off, the headache will come back,”

McIntosh said. “It just becomes more chronic and more


Thomas said medicine should be avoided because, while it may

relieve the pain temporarily, it is not fixing the stress that is

the headaches’ root cause.

“You could be taking Advil for months trying to get rid of your

headaches, but unless you start thinking about how stress is

contributing to them you might be doing it for a long period of

time,” she said.

McIntosh said an anti-inflammatory drug such as ibuprofen is the

best bet for those who decide to take medication.

Instead of popping pain pills, experts suggest first pinpointing

the source of stress.

“Recognizing what it is that is your trigger is the most

important thing,” Simons said. “Stress in small doses can be good,

but you need to recognize when you cross the line.”

She recommends keeping a headache diary to identify when

headaches are most likely to occur and what causes them.

There are also ways to keep a tension headache from growing

after the pain has already begun to develop.

Relaxation techniques such as controlled diaphragmatic

breathing, guided visualization and progressive muscle relaxation,

which involves actively tensing and releasing the muscles, are


“Another style is body scanning, searching your body for any

kind of tension you might be having and just letting it go, reduce

that tension,” Thomas said. “Becoming aware of the tension you

might be holding in your neck or head or face is a big step.”

Stretching, self-massage, exercise and a hot shower are also

good tension-relievers.

Simons said an easy way to combat an oncoming headache is simply

to get away from the stressful situation or environment.

“If you’re hunched over your computer writing a paper or

something, get up, move around, stretch, take a little break and

come back,” she said.

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