"What a headache" is a figure of speech used to describe stressful
situations. Of course, we know actual headaches are equally—if not
more—troubling. The physical pain may result in the need to cancel
plans, lost PTO and a reduced quality of
life. Some headache causes, such as viral symptoms, can't be avoided (sorry).
However, neurologists want you to know that other headache triggers are
"It's important for people to know about behaviors that may cause
headaches so that one does not inflict pain on themselves," says
Dr. Benjamin Emanuel, DO, an associate professor of Neurology at USC-Keck School of Medicine.
Another neurologist agrees that prevention is the ideal Rx when possible
in the case of headaches.
"The best headache is the one you never get," says
Dr. Vernon Williams, MD, a board-certified neurologist, sports neurologist and founding director
of the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe
Institute in Los Angeles.
Need help figuring out where to start? Neurologists agree you'll want
to avoid this easy-to-gloss-over headache trigger and tips for doing just that.
What Are the Top Three Causes of Headaches?
The neurologists we spoke with repeatedly mentioned the same three headache
triggers: "The most common causes of headaches include diet, lack
of sleep and stress," says Dr. Emanuel.
Dr. Emanuel says the good news is that all three of these headache causes
can be prevented with some lifestyle tweaks.
The No. 1 Thing To Avoid if You Want To Reduce Headaches
Surprise: The metaphor about stressful situations "causing headaches"
is actually more than a figure of speech. "It's best to avoid
stress if you want to avoid getting headaches," Dr. Emanuel says.
The most common type of headache is a tension headache," says
Dr. Seth Stoller, MD, a board-certified neurologist and director of the Atlantic Health System's
Headache Center. "This is due to emotional or physical stress (neck
tightness or mood disturbances)."
Research from 2017 notes that 40 percent of people worldwide experience tension-type headaches.
Of course, talking about avoiding stress and doing it are two different
things, and Dr. Stroller empathizes with patients. "In this chaotic
world, it is inevitable to have triggers for stress and headache,"
Dr. Stroller says. "Changing how we deal with this will be imperative
in controlling our headaches."
Tips for Reducing Stress (and the Headaches It Triggers)
1. Change your posture
In the realm of physical stress, many people have desk jobs that can do
a number on their posture. Dr. Stroller says changes to posture, like
sitting up straight with your head over your shoulders, can alleviate
this stress. Ditto for stretching.
Cleveland Clinic has a useful four-minute video of neck and shoulder stretches that don't
even require leaving your chair.
2. Try mindfulness
Though more research on headaches is needed, one older study from
2014 indicated that people with migraines experienced fewer headaches if they
meditation. A good body of evidence, including this
2021 study, suggests
mindfulness is an important tool in stress management.
That's why experts like Dr. Williams recommend it for avoiding stress-related
headaches."Meditation has been shown to help lessen headache occurrences
and severity for many sufferers," Dr. Williams says.
Dr. Stroller agrees."Breathing techniques and other relaxation techniques
can be helpful," Dr. Stroller says.
Cleveland Clinic provides resources on techniques like
diaphragmatic breathing and a
4-7-5 method to get you started.
3. Get enough exercise
If you want to reduce stress, start by getting a move on. "Exercise
is the best actionable way to reduce headaches, especially those caused
by stress," Dr. Emanuel says. "It reduces stress, improves wellness,
improves productivity, reduces cerebrovascular disease and carries a number
of other benefits."
2020 study found that engaging in low- to moderate-intensity aerobic activity for
six weeks helped reduce perceived stress in university studies.
Major bonus: It's free.
Other Lifestyle Tweaks To Reduce Headaches
1. Eat a healthy diet
Dr. Emanuel says that food additives, cheeses, caffeine and alcohol can
trigger headaches."Not everyone will develop headaches from these
types of foods, but if you notice that eating a particular cheese or alcoholic
beverage induces a headache, then try and avoid those triggers,"
Dr. Emanuel says.
While there's no standard headache diet, Dr. Williams says eating
regular, nutritious meals and sipping water can help prevent blood sugar
drops that can lead to migraines. Similarly,
dehydration is a common headache culprit.
2. Get enough sleep
Increase your Zzz's, decrease headaches? Dr. Williams says it's possible.
"Lack of sleep [and] disordered sleep are also common headache triggers,"
Dr. Williams says.
This lack of sleep can have a ripple effect, making it harder to engage
in habit tweaks associated with reducing headaches.
"Lack of sleep makes it harder to exercise or mentally perform,"
Dr. Emanuel says.
The CDC recommends adults get at least seven hours per night.
3. Take screen breaks
Drs. Stroller and Willaims say light can increase headaches. This light
can include blue light emanating from phones.
"Frequent breaks from your computer and smartphone screens to give
your eyes a rest," Dr. Williams says.
It may also help lower stress related to doom scrolling.
4. Keep a headache journal
Dr. Emanuel says journaling about headaches can help reduce them in the
long run for people with chronic headaches.
He suggests tracking:
- Sleep habits
- Alcohol consumption
Ultimately, you'll find patterns to help you make lifestyle tweaks
and give you information to discuss with your doctor.
When Should You Call a Doctor About a Headache?
Ideally, call your doctor before trying any treatments yourself. "No
matter which self-led treatments you think might work for you, it is always
best to speak with your expert physician before embarking on one of them
yourself," Dr. Williams explains.
That said, a headache that lasts a day probably isn't a red flag.
But what is? "Usually acute sudden onset, worst headache of your
life, persistent un-resolving headaches despite treatment and headaches
associated with other neurological deficits, such as facial or arm weakness
are all times to be concerned about a headache," Dr. Emanuel says.