Headache Help Back »

Written by Andrea Hanson under the direction and review of Tara Shafrath (former SDSU Extension Health & Physical Activity Field Specialist).

Headaches are among the most common disorders impacting the nervous system, affecting an estimated 50% of the adult population. They are the most common form of pain and are a major reason missing work or school and visiting health care providers. Headaches come with a variety of symptoms and in multiple forms, but it is up to you to know your body and understand the science behind headaches and how to prevent them.

Common Headaches

The most common forms of headaches are tension headaches and migraines.

Tension Headaches
Tension headaches are the most common type of headache and are caused by tightness of muscles in the shoulders, neck, scalp, and jaw. They are often related to stress, depression, or anxiety and occur in people who work too much, sleep too little, miss meals, or excessively drink alcohol.

Migraine Headaches
Migraine headaches involve moderate or severe throbbing pain, generally on one (or both) side(s) of the head. Migraines can cause nausea and increase sensitivity to light and sound. Like tension headaches, migraines can be related to anxiety, stress, lack of food or sleep, exposure to light, or hormonal changes.

Although tension headaches and migraines have different causes, they include many similar symptoms such as dull, aching head pain; sensation of tightness or pressure across the forehead or on the sides and back of the head; tenderness of the scalp, neck and shoulder muscles; sensitivity to light or sound; difficulty sleeping; chronic fatigue; irritability; disturbed concentration; and general muscle aching.

Management Tips

Headaches of any nature can be bothersome when you are working, studying, playing, or sleeping. Try following these tips to decrease your risk for developing headaches in the future.

  • Maintain good posture.
    Sit up straight and stretch your neck and back regularly to prevent stiffness.
  • Move around throughout the day.
    If you are desk bound, make sure to move around whenever you get the chance. Break up your sedentary time with light activity.
  • Limit screen time.
    Screen time (including TV, computer, smart phone, tablet, etc.) can strain your eyes. Take a frequent breaks from staring at a screen to avoid headaches.
  • Get the right amount of sleep. Too much or too little sleep can cause headaches, so getting 6-8 hours each night is beneficial. Try to go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time each day.
  • Practice a healthy diet and exercise regimen.
    Healthy foods and regular exercise greatly decrease risk for headaches. Avoid skipping meals and exercising on an empty stomach.
  • Stay hydrated. Dehydration is a primary risk factor for headaches.
    Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water throughout the day to reduce headache risk. Carrying a water bottle with you can be helpful to avoid dehydration.
  • Manage stress.
    Take up a hobby, exercise daily, practice yoga, or try deep breathing when you feel stressed to prevent headache pain.
  • Listen to your body.
    If you notice that certain foods or beverages (for example, chocolate or caffeinated drinks) trigger headaches, try eliminating those products from your diet. A diet journal may help you track which foods are triggering headaches.


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