For many people, stress and headaches are inextricably linked.

“Pain is what tells us to get out of a situation,” said Robert Cowan, a professor of neurology and chief of the division of headache and facial pain at Stanford University.

Stress causes headaches for evolutionary, physiological, and chemical reasons, he said.

We were wired for a time when loud noises were something to be frightened of – a lion roaring, for example. Now, they’re far more likely to be a truck rattling by, or the loud ringtone of a cellphone. According to Dr. Cowan, this can make us more reactive to- and stressed out by – things in our everyday life.

Many of us spend workdays at desks. Anatomically, sitting hunched over a computer all day makes headaches more likely. The nerves that send a “tighten up” message to neck and shoulder muscles sit right next to the nerves that mediate pain in the brain, Dr. Cowan said.

According to Alyssa Lebel, a neurologist and pain medicine specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital, breaking the stress-headache connection is particularly important in childhood and adolescence when the brain wiring is laid down.

“It’s never too late,” to break this causal link, she said, but it’s easier to snap before adulthood.

Carolyn Bernstein, clinical director of the Comprehensive Headache Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center adds that when pain patterns get set, the agony becomes self-reinforcing.The brain essentially becomes wired for pain.

While Dr. Bernstein said it is not yet clear whether non medical approaches like relaxation, biofeedback, and meditation are better than pills at treating headaches – they have fewer side effects.

Healthy habits, like eating well, exercising regularly and getting enough, consistent sleep are also essential, she said.

May 29, 2015

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