Women, headaches and stress

By Megan Storey | December 6, 2018

The idea of Christmas usually fills us with joy, but as we start thinking of logistics and ticking things off our mental to-do list, it can become quite overwhelming and stressful. With stress often comes headaches, so we’ve listed the most common headaches women experience at this time of the year, and what you can do to help.

Tension headache

These are the most common types of headaches, and about 42% of women experience these (men are 36%). On average, they start in teenage years, peaking in your thirties and then decline.

These can be triggered by:

  • Poor posture
  • Bright lights, prolonged reading, loud noise
  • Medication overuse
  • Stress, anxiety
  • Fatigue, emotional upsets, depression.

You can help relieve a tension headache by:

  • Reducing stress, or being in a state of mental and physical relaxation
  • Leading a healthy life: Get the right balance of work, fun, rest, sleep and exercise
  • Psychological treatment to help with anxieties or emotional pressures
  • Manual therapy treatment, such as massage or dry needling
  • Other physiological treatment such as heat pads, compress and deep breathing
  • Over-the-counter medication such as aspirin, paracetamol or ibuprofen.
Migraines

Migraines can be pretty severe, and there are many types. They are usually one-sided and often accompanied by sensitivity to light, sound or smell, nausea, vomiting or cold hands. Some people also experience migraines with ‘aura’ which may include visual disturbances or numbness in the arm or leg. They can last from part of a day to three or four days and affect about 15% of Australia’s population.

It’s shown that your susceptibility to migraines is normally inherited (now which side of the family do you blame?), and there can be certain triggers (different for everyone), which include:

  • Dietary triggers: Some common ones include missed, delayed or inadequate meals, caffeine withdrawal, certain alcohol, chocolate, citrus fruits, aged cheese and cultured products, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and dehydration.
  • Environmental triggers: Common ones include bright or flickering lights, bright sunlight, strong smells, travel or flying, weather changes, loud sounds, going to the movies or overuse or incorrect use of computers.
  • Hormonal triggers: Three times more women suffer from migraines than men, with the difference being most apparent during reproductive years. Some common ones include your last menstrual period, menstruation, ovulation, oral contraceptives, pregnancy, hormone replacement therapy and menopause. We’ll go into more detail about this below.
  • Physical and emotional triggers: Common ones include lack of sleep, oversleeping, illness, back and neck pain, sudden, excessive or vigorous exercise, emotional triggers such as excitement or arguments, and relaxation after stress (known as a weekend headache).

There is no cure for migraines, but medication or alternative therapies might help. Alternative therapies include physio and massage, as well as many other areas like aromatherapy and meditation.

Hormones and headaches

Women get more headaches than men, with the difference noted most during the reproductive years, as mentioned above. There are three main areas to hormones and headaches:

  • Migraine and menstruation: The ratio of migraines in children is 1:1 female to male. During reproductive years that ratio changes to three females to every one male. While there are many opinions as to why this is the case, most experts do agree that it’s mainly to do with a fall in oestrogen that triggers a migraine. Migraines associated with PMS (pre-menstrual syndrome) may improve with over-the-counter medications such as evening primrose oil, vitamin B6 or magnesium supplements. Always check with your doctor before taking vitamin B6 as it can have toxic side effects. Doctors can also prescribe other medications. Think about keeping a headache diary so your doctor can better understand the relationship between your cycle and headaches/migraines.
  • Migraine and contraception: The effect of hormonal contraception on migraines is varied – some women get migraines when they start contraception, sometimes it makes them worse, and sometimes it has no effect. Generally speaking, a high dosage pill tends to increase the frequency and intensity of headaches, however a small number of women reported an improvement when they started taking the pill. Talk to your doctor about the best way forward.
  • Migraine and pregnancy: Migraines don’t put pregnancy at risk, but they can be a concern, especially if it occurs for the first time. Studies suggest that 60-70% of migraine sufferers feel an improvement in their migraines during pregnancy – especially during the second and third trimesters. If you’re getting migraines during pregnancy, consult your doctor as many manufacturers don’t recommend their medication. After giving birth, many new mother’s (3-40%) suffer from headaches, migraine re-starts, or may get a migraine for the first time. However, if other headaches occur, see your doctor, as they could be related to a number of other medical issues that may need investigation.
  • Migraine and menopause: Many women find that their migraines worsen leading up to their last period, and shortly after. Those who may not have noticed a link with their menstrual cycle might start developing regular monthly migraines. Some women choose to undergo Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), which replaces oestrogen that the ovaries can no longer produce. In theory, this should help migraines, but alas, the reality might not reflect this! HRT can both relieve migraines and aggravate them. Research suggests oral HRT is better for women who suffer migraines, but always talk to your doctor.

There are so many different types of headaches, and treatment varies from medication to manual therapy and physio. Whatever you’re experiencing, consult your doctor, or get in touch with us – we help many women with their headaches, and would love to help you too.