It's been a day, and now you've got a headache, which is really going to cut into your plans to have a relaxing night on the couch with snacks and made-for-TV holiday movies. Or — even worse — you might be woken up in the middle of the night with an aching noggin and have to decide if you get out of bed to take meds or try to sleep it off.
Uncovering the source of the head pain will help you take action (or get help), so you can reduce the risk that you'll be laid up with a pounder in the future.
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1. You're Stressed
This is zero percent surprising for anyone who's ever felt as if they barely survived the constant onslaught of the day (multiple Zoom calls in a row, a boss who's not happy about that thing, kids vying for your attention while you try to work), but: Stress causes headaches.
These are often tension headaches, and once upon a time they were even called stress headaches, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Fix it: Stress management or relaxation training is a common treatment to ease your mind and thereby reduce your risk of this type of headache. Deep breathing (download the app Breathwrk if you have iOS), listening to calming music, meditation or trying guided imagery (close your eyes and picture a place that’s peaceful to you, like a beach or lying in the sun in a park on a warm day), are a few tools to have in your back pocket as you wind down at night and prepare for bed.
If your tension headaches are frequent enough and the above stress-management techniques don't make a difference, though, talk to your doctor about medications that might help, such as muscle relaxants or certain anti-depressants.
2. You're Spending Too Much Time in Front of Your Computer
Jumping off of the endless Zoom call bandwagon, you might find yourself hanging out in front of your computer more when WFH compared to last winter when you were still in the office. In fact, some estimations say that workers are logging longer hours — about 30 minutes more in the U.S.
So here's the deal: If you're staring at a computer screen, you're at risk of developing "computer vision syndrome," which includes symptoms like eyestrain, neck and shoulder pain and headaches, according to the American Optometric Association (AOA).
Fix it: If you wear glasses, make sure you have the right prescription for viewing a computer screen, correct your posture when doing work and practice the 20-20-20 rule: For every 20 minutes on your computer, look away for 20 seconds at something 20 feet away.
3. You Have Hypnic Headaches
Also called "alarm-clock headaches," these pains — which are more common in people over age 50 — only happen at night and occur at the same time at night, explains Raj Dasgupta, MD, assistant professor of clinical medicine at Keck School of Medicine of USC in Los Angeles.
They're so regular, in fact, that they wake you up like your own special alarm clock.
Fix it: It’s important to note that these headaches are rare, Dr. Dasgupta says. See your doctor, who will rule out other causes of nighttime headaches and help you come up with a treatment plan.
Interestingly, consuming caffeine at bedtime is a common treatment, according to the American Migraine Foundation. Other treatments may include prescription pain medications and melatonin.
4. You're Grinding Your Teeth
Headache is a common symptom of teeth grinding. The coronavirus pandemic has caused enough psychological stress that more people are experiencing teeth grinding and jaw pain, according to a 2020 study in the Journal of Clinical Medicine.
Fix it: If you grind your teeth (you may not be truly aware of it, but your dentist might ask you at your next appointment if your teeth show signs), then you may need a mouth guard to protect your teeth from damage.
Developing a stress-management plan to help you stop grinding is a smart move, too. Habits like regular stretching, yoga or self-massage may help you release angst rather than constantly clenching.
5. You Have a Headache Disorder
Migraine, tension and cluster headaches are the three big categories of headaches.
"These can happen at any time, including nighttime, and are triggered by various factors, like poor sleep or too much sleep, food, medications and stress," Dr. Dasgupta says.
Fix it: You don’t have to live in pain. If headaches are striking often, jot down how they feel — a good description can help your doctor make an accurate diagnosis.
Migraine headaches are characterized by throbbing sensations, are often severe and the onset may come with an aura (like seeing flashing lights), Dr. Dasgupta says. Tension headaches are like a band around your head. Finally, cluster headaches are burning and piercing, aptly called “ice pick” headaches.
6. It's a True Emergency
If you can describe your headache as "the worst headache of my life," that's a buzzword that perks up an emergency physician's ears, Dr. Dasgupta says.
Especially if the headache peaks in intensity quickly — say, in a matter of minutes or one to two hours max — one potential cause is a ruptured brain aneurysm that can lead to a brain bleed, which is life-threatening.
Fix it: Get help immediately and tell emergency personnel that, yes, this is “the worst headache of my life.”
7. You Have Anxiety or Depression
By the evening, everything from the day has come to a head. While you can experience symptoms of anxiety or depression at any time of the day, for some people, they may be especially acute once the day is over.
Headaches themselves can indicate that someone has generalized anxiety disorder, per the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. What's more, people who have more severe symptoms of mood disorders are also more likely to have migraines, March 2018 research in the journal Headache shows. (And the link sometimes applies the other way, with people who have headache disorders developing mood disorders because of the stress the headaches cause in their lives.)
Fix it: There are medications that can treat both headaches and anxiety or depression. Talk to your doctor.
- Cleveland Clinic: “Tension-Type Headaches”
- Kaiser Permanente: “Stress Management: Doing Guided Imagery to Relax”
- Atlassian: “Proof our work-life balance is in danger (but there’s still hope)”
- American Optometric Association: “Computer Vision Syndrome”
- American Migraine Foundation: “Hypnic Headache”
- Journal of Clinical Medicine: “Temporomandibular Disorders and Bruxism Outbreak as a Possible Factor of Orofacial Pain Worsening during the COVID-19 Pandemic—Concomitant Research in Two Countries”
- Mayo Clinic: “Bruxism (teeth grinding)”
- Brain Aneurysm Foundation: “Warning Signs/Symptoms”
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America: “Headaches”
- Headache: “Associations Between Depression/Anxiety and Headache Frequency in Migraineurs: A Cross-Sectional Study”
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.