10 Signs You're Having a Stress Headache

You're burning the candle at both ends, working as hard as you can and now this...another headache. You wonder, "Is it a migraine?  Am I getting sick or is the tension is just getting to me?"  How do you know when you're having a stress headache? You don't need an x-ray, lab test or special testing to diagnose a stress headache.  Just read the signs.

Stress headaches (or tension headaches) are the most common kind of headaches adults experience.  Millions of people get stress headaches as often as 15 times in a month; any more than that and they're called "chronic" headaches.  Most, however, only get stress headaches once-in-a-while. They might last a half hour or less, or they might go on for hours.  While there's no singular cause for stress headaches, they often occur when the body is literally "under stress" like when you're tired, worried, hungry, over-stimulated, working too hard or just fed up. 

You know you're having a stress headache when:

1. You have no other visual, auditory or other sensory symptoms.  Migraine headaches often start with a telltale "aura."  That's a sign (usually a change in vision, hearing or sense of smell) you're about to have a migraine. Migraine headaches are also often accompanied by nausea. 

2. You aren't oversensitive to light or sound.  Bright lights and loud noises may not exactly help your headache, but they don't make it a lot worse either.  Migraine sufferers are usually extremely light and sound sensitive. Stress headaches only cause mild light and sound sensitivity

3. Your headache feels like a dull throbbing pain on the top, sides or front of your head.  Or, it may feel like you have a tight band around your head at the level of your forehead, ears and crown.

4. Your headache affects both sides of your head.  Migraine sufferers tend to feel pain only on one side of their head.

5. Your headache usually starts in the afternoon or evening, after the stresses of the day have added up.  Migraines can happen any time.

6. You feel other signs of stress like irritability, muscle aches, jaw, neck or back pain, insomnia or a short temper.

7. Your headaches frequently occur when you're short on sleep, missed a meal, over done it on a workout or pushed your physical limits in some other way.

8. Your head bothers you, but you don't feel sick like you would with a cold or flu.  You don't have a fever, congestion, body aches or an upset stomach. 

9. Your headaches go away when you follow these guidelines (provided by the American Academy of Family Physicians):

  • Put a heat pack or ice pack on your head or neck.
  • Take a hot shower.
  • Get enough rest or sleep.
  • Take time away from things that are stressful. This could mean doing anything from taking a brief walk to taking a vacation.
  • Get regular exercise of all types. Work up to exercising for 30 to 60 minutes, 4 to 6 times a week.

10. Your headache usually goes away with over-the-counter medications like aspirin, Tylenol or ibuprofen.  Migraines often require stronger pain medications or migraine-specific medications.  Chronic stress headaches may need to be treated with anti-anxiety, anti-depressant, muscle relaxant and/or prescription-strength pain medications