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Can Depression Cause Headaches?

Experiencing a throbbing headache at the end of a long, stressful day is all too familiar for many of us. But when this becomes a recurring issue, it might prompt you to wonder, “Is there more to this headache than just stress and fatigue?”

If you suffer from depression, there’s a chance there is. Headaches from depression are a common symptom. While depression isn’t always the direct cause of a headache, it can contribute to its frequency and intensity. In this article, we’ll explore the link between depression and headaches as well as what you can do to manage them.

The Link Between Depression and Headaches

Headaches are prevalent among people with depression. In fact, research shows people diagnosed with depression are twice as likely to experience migraines.¹ While we don’t fully understand the exact cause of this link, experts believe shared biological mechanisms and psychological factors may play a role.

Depression is the result of changes in brain chemicals, which can affect pain processing and the perception of physical symptoms like headaches. Additionally, psychological factors such as stress, anxiety, or negative thinking patterns can contribute to depression and headaches.

Types of Headaches Associated With Depression

There are three main types of headaches associated with depression: cluster, migraines, and tension.

Migraines

Migraines can present as:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Pulsating pain on one side of the head
  • Sensitivity to light and sound

While they can occur in people without depression, individuals with depression may experience them more often and severely. Research has shown that treating depression can also help reduce the intensity and frequency of migraines.²

Tension Headaches

Characterised by dull, persistent pain around the back or neck, tension headaches are the most common. Often times, stress is a common trigger. In some cases, treating underlying depression helps reduce tension headaches.

Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches, a less common type, present as intense pain around one eye, often accompanied by nasal congestion and tearing.

While we don’t know the exact cause of cluster headaches, researchers link them to changes in brain chemicals like those found in depression. As with migraines and tension headaches, treating depression may also help reduce the frequency and severity of cluster headaches.

Other Depression-Related Symptoms

Aside from a depression headache, you may experience other physical symptoms, such as:

  • A change in appetite: Depression can cause changes in appetite, leading to overeating or loss of appetite.
  • Digestive issues: Depression can also cause digestive problems, like stomach pain, diarrhoea, or constipation.
  • Fatigue and loss of energy: Feeling constantly drained of energy and tired is a common symptom of depression.
  • Sleep disturbances: Depression can also disrupt sleep patterns, leading to insomnia or oversleeping.
  • Unexplained aches and pains: Researchers link depression to increased inflammation in the body, which can lead to joint and muscle pain.

It’s important to note that these symptoms may vary from person to person and don’t always indicate the presence of depression. However, if you are experiencing one or more of these symptoms for an extended period, it’s best to seek medical advice.

Traditional Treatment Types for Depression

Medication

Mental health providers often prescribe antidepressants to treat moderate or severe depression and balance chemicals in the brain that affect mood.

Common antidepressant medications include:

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs): SSRIs are the most widely prescribed and block the reabsorption of serotonin, a chemical messenger that affects mood. Examples include fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline (Lustral), and escitalopram (Cipralex).
  • Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs): SNRIs, designed as a more effective alternative to SSRIs, block the reabsorption of both serotonin and norepinephrine, another chemical messenger. Examples include venlafaxine (Effexor) and duloxetine (Cymbalta).
  • Noradrenaline and specific serotonergic antidepressants (NASSAs): These medications block the reabsorption of norepinephrine and serotonin but in a different way than SNRIs. Initially, they can increase drowsiness but may cause fewer sexual problems. Mirtazapine (Zispin) is an example.
  • Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs): TCAs, an older class of antidepressants, aren’t usually the first choice for treating depression because they’re more dangerous in the case of overdose. However, doctors may prescribe them if other antidepressants haven’t worked. TCAs block the reabsorption of serotonin and norepinephrine, like SNRIs, but with different side effects. Some examples are amitriptyline (Elavil) and nortriptyline (Pamelor).

Antidepressants offer the most effective relief from symptoms, particularly in cases of severe depression, providing rapid alleviation. However, it may take a few weeks before you feel their full effect, and you may need to try different medications before finding the right one. Follow your doctor’s instructions carefully when taking antidepressants.

Talk Therapy

Talk therapy offers a structured, evidence-based approach to help you effectively manage and mitigate depressive symptoms. This type of therapy focuses on changing negative thought patterns and behaviours that contribute to depression.

Common types of talk therapy include:

  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT): CBT is a short-term, goal-oriented therapy that focuses on challenging and changing negative thought patterns that contribute to depression. It also helps you develop coping skills to manage depressive symptoms.
  • Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT): DBT is a type of CBT that focuses on helping individuals regulate their emotions, manage distress, and improve relationships.
  • Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET): NET is a form of trauma-focused treatment that helps individuals process traumatic experiences and learn to cope with distressing memories.

You can complete talk therapy sessions individually or in group settings. Doctors usually recommend it alongside medication for best results. A 2020 study shows that talk therapy combined with medication can improve severe depressive symptoms, reduce the likelihood of relapse, and provide long-term benefits.³

Going Beyond Traditional Treatments

In recent years, innovative approaches like ketamine-assisted healing and deep TMS have emerged as promising complements to conventional depression treatments.

Deep Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (Deep TMS)

Deep TMS is a non-invasive treatment that uses magnetic pulses through a helmet on your head to stimulate specific brain regions associated with mood regulation. Each session takes about 20 minutes, and clients typically undergo treatment for five to seven weeks. Side effects are minimal, aside from a brief headache.

This treatment is effective in individuals who haven’t succeeded with traditional therapies or are resistant to medication.

Ketamine-Assisted Healing

Studies show that ketamine, a dissociative anaesthetic, has rapid and significant antidepressant effects when administered under medical supervision. A 2021 study published in the Journal of Dental Anesthesia and Pain Medicine suggests that subcutaneous ketamine is more effective than saline at reducing the severity of migraines

Current research suggests that ketamine acts on glutamate, a neurotransmitter involved in brain signalling pathways linked to mood regulation. Ketamine can provide relief within hours or days, while antidepressants can take weeks or months to take effect.

9 Tips For Managing Headaches From Depression

Aside from medical treatments, there are lifestyle changes that can help manage the headaches associated with depression.

Here are nine tips to incorporate into your routine:

  1. Stay hydrated. Dehydration can worsen headache symptoms, so drink plenty of water throughout the day.
  2. Get enough sleep. Lack of sleep can trigger headaches, so aim for seven to nine hours of quality sleep each night.
  3. Practice relaxation techniques. Stress can trigger or worsen all types of headaches. Learning relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation can help reduce stress levels.
  4. Keep a headache diary. Keeping track of your headaches can help identify triggers and patterns, making it easier to manage them. Note each episode’s date, time, duration, location, intensity, and potential triggers.
  5. Avoid trigger foods and drinks. Aged cheeses, alcohol, and chocolate are known to trigger migraines. Keeping a food diary helps identify trigger foods.
  6. Aim for 30 minutes of exercise every day. Regular exercise regularly helps improve overall mood and reduce stress.
  7. Seek support. Reach out to loved ones or join a support group to connect with others who understand what you’re going through. Talking about your experiences and feelings can help alleviate some of the emotional burden.
  8. Take breaks and prioritise self-care. It’s important to give yourself breaks and prioritise self-care. This could include taking a day off work or scheduling time for activities you enjoy.
  9. Educate yourself about depression and chronic headaches. Knowing the causes, symptoms, and treatments empowers you to take control of your health.

Managing headaches from depression may take time, patience, and trial and error. If a particular method doesn’t work for you, keep trying until you find what works best for you, and always consult with your doctor before starting any new treatment methods.

Empower Yourself with Comprehensive Care at APN London

At APN London, we understand the impact that depression and headaches can have on your daily life. That’s why our team of mental health care professionals offer comprehensive care to address your physical and mental wellbeing.

Our services include:

  • Deep TMS
  • Group and individual therapy
  • Ketamine-assisted healing
  • Lifestyle psychiatry
  • Nutritional therapy
  • Massage therapy

Managing headaches from depression is possible with the right tools and support. Our team will work with you to create a personalised treatment plan. Contact us at 0203 984 7699 or complete our online contact form. We can help you find relief.

References

  1. Jahangir S, Adjepong D, Al-Shami HA, Malik BH. Is There an Association Between Migraine and Major Depressive Disorder? A Narrative Review. Cureus. 2020 Jun 10;12(6):e8551. doi: 10.7759/cureus.8551. PMID: 32670688; PMCID: PMC7357317. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7357317
  2. Burch R. Antidepressants for Preventive Treatment of Migraine. Curr Treat Options Neurol. 2019 Mar 21;21(4):18. doi: 10.1007/s11940-019-0557-2. PMID: 30895388. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30895388
  3. Gautam M, Tripathi A, Deshmukh D, Gaur M. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Depression. Indian J Psychiatry. 2020 Jan;62(Suppl 2):S223-S229. doi: 10.4103/psychiatry.IndianJPsychiatry_772_19. Epub 2020 Jan 17. PMID: 32055065; PMCID: PMC7001356. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7001356
  4. Chah N, Jones M, Milord S, Al-Eryani K, Enciso R. Efficacy of ketamine in the treatment of migraines and other unspecified primary headache disorders compared to placebo and other interventions: a systematic review. J Dent Anesth Pain Med. 2021 Oct;21(5):413-429. doi: 10.17245/jdapm.2021.21.5.413. Epub 2021 Oct 1. PMID: 34703891; PMCID: PMC8520840. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8520840