Stress makes headaches last longer, study finds

Stress is known to help trigger headaches, and new research finds that it also makes them last longer.
(Photo Illustration by Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

Stress is known to trigger headaches. Now it gets worse: Researchers have found that the more intense a person’s stress, the more time he or she will spend in pain.

The findings are based on data from the German Headache Consortium Study. Researchers interviewed 5,159 adults about their headache history and other health factors once every three months from 2010 to 2012. Among other things, volunteers were asked to rate the intensity of their stress on a 100-point scale.

Tension headaches – the most common type – were the most sensitive to stress, the researchers found. About 30% of people surveyed said they suffered tension headaches, which lasted for an average of 2.2 days per month. However, for every 10-point increase in stress intensity, the duration of these headaches increased by 6.3%. That worked out to an extra 3.3 hours per month.

Also, 14% of people in the study suffered from migraines, and they had them for 4.5 days per month, on average. These headaches were not quite as sensitive to stress – a 10-point bump in stress intensity was correlated with a 4.3% increase in migraine duration. However, since migraines lasted longer than tension headaches, that translated to 4.6 extra hours of migraine misery per month.


For the 10.6% of people unlucky enough to experience migraines and tension headaches at the same time, a 10-point increase in stress was correlated with a 4% increase in headache duration. These combination headaches lasted for 3.6 days per month, on average, and the added stress lengthened these headaches by nearly 3.5 hours per month.

All of the results were adjusted to account for the age and gender of each headache sufferer, along with his or her smoking and drinking habits, use of acute-pain drugs and other factors.

The researchers could not draw any conclusions about a link between stress and “unclassifiable” headaches, which were reported by 17% of people in the study.

The findings show that stress “is a problem for everyone who suffers from headaches,” said Dr. Sara H. Schramm of the University Hospital of University Duisburg-Essen, the study’s leader. Finding ways to manage stress should be a priority for patients and their doctors, she added in a statement.

The study will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s annual meeting in Philadelphia. It was funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

If you’re interested in the latest scientific and medical studies, you like the things I write about. Follow me on Twitter and “like” Los Angeles Times Science & Health on Facebook.