It's the most common type of headache you can get—but the term "stress" headache isn't entirely accurate.

By Taylyn Washington-Harmon
June 30, 2020
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Right now, stress feels like the new normal—and more stress in your life can lead to changes in your health.

Headaches in particular are often brought about by increased stress levels, but while "stress headaches" may be a good description of what's going on in your body, it's not an entirely accurate diagnosis. Here's what you need to know about headaches triggered by stress, and how to help relieve the pain. 

What is a "stress" headache?

Stress headaches aren’t an official classification of headaches in the International Classification of Headache Disorders (ICHD-3), but are more accurately known as “tension-type” or tension headaches, Ellen Drexler, MD, a board-certified neurologist based in New York, tells Health.

“Tension-type headaches are defined by the absence of migraine features, so they tend to appear on both sides of the head, feeling like a pressure pain, without the usual migraine accompaniments of nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, and worsened by head movement,” says Dr. Drexler. “They'd be the sort of run-of-the-mill pressure in the front of your head kind of headache of mild to moderate severity.”

According to the US National Library of Medicine's MedlinePlus database, tension headaches are the most common type of headache and are described as pain or discomfort in the head, scalp, or neck, often associated with muscle tightness. Tension headaches affect roughly 70% of people, and can last for 30 minutes to 72 hours, Susan Broner, MD, assistant professor of clinical neurology at Weill Cornell Medical College, tells Health, and in order to be properly diagnosed with tension headaches, you need to have a history of them. “To make the diagnosis, you've had to have had at least 10 of these [headaches]," Dr. Broner says. 

Stress, of course, plays a key role in triggering tension headaches. "The exact mechanisms aren't clear, but it's theorized that when people are exhibiting stress, physiological changes occur in the body,” Dr. Broner says. “Increased cortisol levels and our fight-or-flight response gets revved up, triggering a migraine or tension-type headache.” Aside from stress, other triggers of tension headaches, according to MedlinePlus, include: alcohol use, caffeine, illnesses (colds, the flu, etc.), dental problems, eye strain, excessive smoking, and fatigue or overexertion.

How can you treat "stress" headaches—and when should you see a doctor?

Depending on the severity and length of your stress headache, it can go away on its own by simply taking a break from whatever activity is causing you stress, Dr. Wexler says. Lying down, meditating, or doing some light yoga are all great options. 

However, if the pain is really bothersome, most stress headaches can be treated with over-the-counter analgesics like ibuprofen or naproxen, Dr. Broner says—but be wary of the frequency with which you’re taking medications. “If you find that you're taking [medications] more than once a week on a regular basis, that's a sign that you're getting increased headache frequency and you should speak to your doctor about what's causing your headaches,” Dr. Broner says. 

Dr. Wexler also recommends that if headaches aren’t the norm for you, especially if you’re over the age of 50, you should consider speaking to a neurologist or headache specialist, since this could signal that something else more serious is going on. Some other warning signs to pay attention to, according to Dr. Wexler, include: “headaches that consistently get worse or more frequent over time, accompanied by any neurological conditions such as double vision, numbness, tingling, paralysis, loss of vision, or accompanied by a fever.” 

Despite a stress headache or two being normal, Dr. Broner encourages you not to let them become a regular part of your life you have to adjust to. “It's a very difficult time for so many people so be kind to yourself and relax even when you're under stress,” Dr. Broner says. “If stress is interfering with your sleep and your mood, get help to learn how to deal with it.”

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