Yes, We Really Are Having More Headaches Right Now — Here’s Why
People can experience stress in different ways during the pandemic. Many of those experiences can trigger headaches.
When you’re stuck at home in self-isolation and the world as you once knew it is crumbling, life can feel like one giant stress headache — literally. Tension-type headaches, also known as tension or stress headaches, affect about three-quarters of the population. And the doctors I spoke to say that number is almost certainly on the rise, thanks to the life-altering changes brought on by a global pandemic.
A textbook tension-type headache includes pain that feels like pressing or tightening, usually on both sides of the head. Some people describe the sensation as viselike, as if a tight band were wrapped around their skull. Other people experience neck or other muscle tension along with their headaches. The pain can range from mild and annoying to debilitating, lasting anywhere from 30 minutes to an entire week (or, theoretically, even longer if you’re under extreme stress, like during a pandemic).
No matter what you call them, tension headaches do have a lot to do with stress and tension. “In the most basic terms, stress of all kinds is the biggest trigger for tension headaches,”says Steven Rider, MD, a neurologist at the University of Tennessee Medical Center. “In the face of the current global viral pandemic, that stress may include concerns about loss of livelihood, ability to pay expenses, and concern about personal safety and well-being.”
“It’s been well known for years that a change in routine can really exacerbate headaches in general.”
Benjamin Nager, MD, a neurologist with Northwestern Medicine, says tension headaches often stem from changes in routine. Maybe you’re working from home, where you may not have a comfortable workspace. Maybe you’re sleeping or exercising less than you normally do, or your diet or water intake have shifted. All these things, he says, can contribute to tension headaches.
“It’s been well known for years that a change in routine can really exacerbate headaches in general,” Nager says. “Just…