Headache disorders and depression are very common among the population, and research shows they are closely related.
A chronic headache disorder can disrupt daily life and cause stress, anxiety, and result in depression.
Treating one condition may also help improve the other. Keep reading to learn more.
Depression is a complex condition. The most likely cause is a combination of different factors, including genes, biology, and a person’s environment.
Doctors class headache disorders as primary or secondary. Primary headache disorders are more common.
Primary headache disorders include migraine, tension-type headache, and cluster headache.
Secondary headache disorders may result from a head injury, high blood pressure, or an infection.
Headache disorders and mental health
Headache disorders are common among the population but especially common in people who have depression, anxiety, or both.
Many people who experience migraine are also more likely to have depression or anxiety. Chronic pain and stress that migraine causes can lead to mental health problems.
There are specific imbalances with chemicals called serotonin and dopamine that may underlie depression and migraine. However, researchers still need to explore the specific connection between the two.
Headache and sleep
Depression can make it difficult to sleep well. Sleep deprivation can trigger a headache and may lower a person’s threshold for pain. A lack of sleep may cause more frequent or more painful headaches.
Feeling very tired can cause a low mood and may worsen symptoms of depression.
Depression can reduce energy, motivation, and appetite. It can be harder to eat well or drink enough fluids. When someone is dehydrated, it means they have not got enough fluids in their body.
Dehydration can be a trigger for headaches. It is important to drink enough water daily to prevent headaches occurring.
Depression and stress can significantly disrupt a person’s life.
Symptoms of depression can include difficulty concentrating, feelings of guilt, loss of interest in hobbies, and difficulty working or socializing.
These symptoms can lead to stress, worry, and anxiety that, in turn, can cause more frequent headaches.
A common cause of chronic migraine is medication overuse headache.
Taking pain medication regularly for migraine or tension headaches can lead to headaches that last for days at a time.
People may wish to try to avoid using “as needed” pain medications more than 2 days a week. If someone is using these medications more frequently than this, they may want to talk to their doctor about a preventive alternative.
Migraine can also lead to depression. It is a chronic illness that can cause ongoing pain and disruption to daily life.
Migraine can make it challenging to plan, and a person may worry about missing an important event or being unable to work.
Migraine can also cause tiredness and appetite loss.
All these elements of migraine can be risk factors for depression.
Symptoms of depression vary from person to person. Feeling gloomy can occur with many of us, but a diagnosis of depression must meet specific criteria.
Symptoms of depression last for weeks or months and get in the way of everyday activities, such as work or hobbies.
Depression can have mental, physical, and social symptoms. For some people, a headache can signal the start of a depressive episode.
There are many different types of headache. Some examples include:
- Tension headache that causes a dull pain, with a tight neck or scalp. Stress is a common cause.
- Migraine is a medical condition that causes a throbbing headache. Other symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, sound sensitivity, and light sensitivity.
- Cluster headache causes severe pain on one side of the head, lasting up to 3 hours. Attacks happen repeatedly over weeks and cycle at specific times of the year. Cluster headache is also called “suicide headache” due to thoughts of suicide that can arise during an attack cycle.
The location of pain, how long a headache lasts, and any other symptoms can help with a diagnosis. Different types of headaches may need different treatments.
If a person has depression and a headache disorder, it is important to treat both. Treatments will vary from person to person.
Most people benefit from psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of both. Lifestyle changes can help to support recovery.
Treating mild to moderate headaches involves rest, fluids, and over-the-counter pain relief.
Migraine is a severe headache disorder that currently has no cure.
Preventive and rescue treatments plus support from a psychiatrist and psychologist can help treat both depression and headaches.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), biofeedback, and relaxation are some treatments that can help both depression and headaches.
Biofeedback therapy is when a person connects to a machine that responds to changes in the body, such as heart rate or breathing. The technique can assist with managing stress, anxiety, or muscle tension.
Biofeedback therapy can help a person to understand what triggers their headaches and how the body reacts.
A person can then learn techniques to help control these reactions, such as relaxing muscles. Doctors often use this form of therapy alongside medication.
Some medications can treat both depression and migraine.
Understanding headache triggers can help to prevent them. A person can keep notes about the following:
- every headache
- when it happens
- what it feels like
- how long it lasts
- any patterns that repeat
Maybe a headache happens during a depressive episode when a person has not slept well. Similarly, there may be a strong link to stress at work.
Any observations may help someone identify specific triggers and support a doctor in recommending treatment.
It can also be beneficial to keep a regular schedule for going to bed and getting up in the morning. Drinking plenty of fluids during the day also helps to keep a person feeling well.
Limiting stress may not always be possible, but some things can help manage stress, including:
- getting outside for some fresh air
- using relaxation methods, such as breathing exercises or yoga
- talking to friends or family
- accepting what a person cannot change
A person should see a doctor if they have symptoms of depression for 2 weeks or if thoughts arise of self-harming or harming someone else.
There are links between depression, anxiety, and headache disorders. Seeking help for these conditions together can be more effective than trying to treat each separately.
Knowing a person’s full medical history can help a doctor offer the right support.
Headache can be a symptom of depression or a separate condition. Migraine can cause stress and disruption and make depression worse. Seeking help and support for headaches and depression can help a person find the right treatment for both.
Knowing individual triggers for headaches can help to prevent them. Some lifestyle changes can be useful alongside medical treatments, such as preventive medications and biofeedback therapy.