Stress Headache or Something Worse: How to Tell

Well Being Friday, December 4, 2015 Written by

Chances are you’ve had one: those pestering headaches that are common enough but can be moderately painful, distracting, and cause irritability. They can co-occur with stress or dehydration, but often they seem to happen at random.

These stress headaches, also called tension headaches, affect some 30 to 80 percent of the population, who report getting them on occasion. A smaller number, around three percent, experience them chronically.

Stress Headache Causes

The exact cause of tension headaches varies, and can be difficult to pinpoint. They can include lack of sleep, dehydration, anxiety, hunger, and more. As the term “stress headache” would seem to indicate, various physical and emotional stressors can bring about these types of mild to moderate headaches. Everything from problems at home or work, over extending yourself with too many commitments, and major life changes like moving or starting a new job can be contributing factors.

Is It a Migraine?

Tension headaches differ from migraines in a few key ways. Migraines tend to be more severe, and typically affect only one side of the head whereas tension headaches affect both sides.  Other symptoms of migraines include nausea, seeing spots or flashes of light, sensitivity to sound and light, temporary vision loss, and vomiting. Migraines can sometimes be preceded by an “aura,” where the person sees flashes of lights. Ten to thirty minutes later, a migraine occurs. Migraines, thankfully, affect a smaller number of people, but they’re certainly severely painful for those who do get them.

Stress Headache Remedies

Most tension headaches are easily solvable with over-the-counter medicines you likely have in your home already: acetaminophen, aspirin, and ibuprofen are all effective ways to medicate a stress headache. Follow the dosage instructions on the bottle, and your headache is usually relieved within a short time.

When to See Your Doctor

It’s important to recognize when a headache is a sign of something else. In a few rare situations, you’ll need to consult your doctor, who may order a head CT or brain MRI to determine the nature of the problem.

Call your doctor if you are experiencing slurred speech; fainting; fever over 102 to 104 Fahrenheit; numbness, weakness, or paralysis on one side of your body; neck stiffness; difficulty with vision or walking; and nausea or vomiting. In addition, if your headaches are occurring more frequently than usual (particularly if you are over 50 years old), are more severe than usual, don’t improve with over-the-counter medication, or are interfering with your day-to-day activities, it’s worth speaking with a physician about.