Headaches, the sharp, throbbing, uncomfortable pains that occur in multiple regions of your head, are common occurrences. In fact, up to 80 percent of adults experience tension headaches.
However, when headaches are linked with depression, you could be dealing with other chronic issues, too.
Sometimes, depression can cause headaches, along with other pains in the body. Research has also shown there are strong links between tension headaches and mental health disorders, including depression and anxiety.
In fact, one study reported by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) found that about 11 percent of people with mental health disorders had migraine attacks that preceded them. This included major depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorders.
The ADAA also reports that up to 40 percent of people with migraine may also experience depression. Other types of headaches may be secondary, or a symptom of depression.
Understanding the causes and symptoms of depression headaches can lead to more effective treatment and preventive measures. Learn more so you can talk with your doctor.
Headaches may be classified as either primary or secondary.
Primary headaches may be brought on by lifestyle factors, such as chronic stress, alcohol use, and poor diet. Examples of primary headaches include migraine, cluster, and tension headaches.
Secondary headaches are linked to other underlying conditions, such as muscle aches or medical conditions. Examples of secondary headaches and their causes include:
- sinus headaches
- exercise-induced headaches
- chronic daily headaches
- sex headaches
- headaches from coughing
- illnesses, such as the flu or infection
- high blood pressure, blood clots, or other cardiovascular issues
Headaches can occur at any time of the day, making them unpredictable and leaving you unprepared.
Depression headaches are associated with tension and migraine. Whether a headache is causing your depression or vice-versa depends on the frequency of your headaches. This can be difficult to determine.
Daily headaches associated with muscle aches and stress may cause depressive symptoms. If depression is an underlying condition, you may experience headaches.
Secondary headaches that are brought on by depression are typically tension headaches, according to the National Headache Foundation.
A headache causes pain in your head. The type and intensity of the pain depends on the type of headache you have.
A headache can include one or more of the following symptoms:
- ongoing dull ache
- sharp pain
- radiating pain that moves to more than one area of the head
With sinus headaches, you’re likely to also experience pain around your forehead, cheeks, and nose, where your sinuses are located.
They aren’t typically associated with depression, though frequent sinus headaches can decrease your quality of life.
Tension headaches can occur in the middle of your head and be accompanied by pain in your neck.
They tend to develop more gradually and occur from muscle contractions around the neck and scalp area. This type of headache is secondary to depressive symptoms.
A migraine attack, on the other hand, develops suddenly. Unlike other types of headaches, you can experience a migraine attack for several hours or even days. Migraine also makes you:
- extremely sensitive to light and sound
- nauseated, with or without vomiting
- unable to work and perform basic everyday tasks
- cancel commitments, such as work or social events
For these reasons, migraine attacks often occur before depression.
Depression can either cause a headache or become a related complication of frequent headaches, such as migraine. In either case, it’s important to identify your depression symptoms so you can seek treatment.
Symptoms of depression include:
- severe sadness
- excessive daytime sleepiness and nighttime insomnia
- withdrawal from social activities
- decreased sex drive
- loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
- physical pain
- appetite changes
- frequent crying
- headaches and other body aches such as back pain
Depression can also cause suicidal thoughts. If you’re experience suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Treating depression headaches can involve a multipronged approach, depending on the underlying causes. You may need treatment for both the headache and depression symptoms. Talk to your doctor about the following options.
Depression migraine medications
Certain prescription medications may be used to treat both depression and anxiety as well as migraine. These include tricyclic antidepressants, monoamine oxidase inhibitors, and anxiolytics.
Botox injections are another treatment option if prescription drugs aren’t well-tolerated. Treating migraine first may alleviate depression symptoms.
Tension headache treatment
Some of the same prescription medications can also treat secondary headaches and other symptoms of depression. These include tricyclic antidepressants and biofeedback.
SSRIs for depression
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most common medications used to treat depression. Examples include Zoloft, Paxil, and Prozac.
This treatment approach may be best if your doctor determines that your headaches are secondary to depression. SSRIs don’t treat the actual headaches.
OTC pain relievers
Over-the-counter (OTC) medications can temporarily ease the pain of a severe headache.
These medications include the classics, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB), as well as more migraine-specific medications, such as Excedrin Migraine, which has aspirin, acetaminophen, and caffeine.
The problem with OTC pain relievers is they only mask the underlying causes of depression headaches. Also, if you’re taking antidepressants, you may not be able to take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen and aspirin.
Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, involves hour-long appointments with a mental health professional to work through your thoughts and behaviors. Unlike a psychiatrist, a psychotherapist doesn’t prescribe medication.
Psychotherapy is widely used for depression and anxiety disorders to help modify thoughts and behaviors. If you have major depression with your chronic headaches, then psychotherapy can help alleviate these symptoms over the long term.
Aside from taking prescribed medications, lifestyle habits can go a long way in treating underlying depression that may be contributing to your headaches:
- Diet. Eating a healthy diet of whole foods, not processed ingredients, can help fuel your brain and overall mood.
- Exercise. While it’s difficult to exercise with a headache, regular workouts in between severe headaches can help pump oxygen throughout the body and potentially decrease the incidence of headaches.
- Reduced stress. Stress management and staying socially active also go a long way in treating and preventing depression.
- Complementary treatments. Acupuncture, yoga, and massage are alternative treatments that can help.
While it may seem contradictory, you’ll also want to avoid taking too many OTC headache medications.
Overusing these medications can lead to rebound headaches. These headaches occur when your body gets used to the medications and they no longer work. Rebound headaches tend to be more severe, too.
Your symptoms may warrant a doctor’s visit if you continue to experience headaches on a daily basis, your depressive symptoms get worse, or both.
The Mayo Clinic also recommends seeing a doctor if you have two or more headaches per week.
When determining if you need to see a doctor, ask yourself:
- Are your headaches and symptoms of depression improving?
- Are OTC medications helping?
- Can you make it through the day without taking OTC pain medications?
- Are you able to pursue everyday activities, such as work and hobbies?
If you’ve answered no to any of these questions, it may be time to see your doctor.
You can find a mental health professional by searching the Find a Therapist tool from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Your primary care doctor may also have recommendations for clinical mental health professionals.
Chronic headaches can sometimes cause depression, but it’s also possible to have headaches caused by untreated depression too. In both cases, your headaches and depression are treatable.
The key is to see your doctor if you’re experiencing symptoms of depression and chronic headaches. Your doctor can help you figure out the best treatment approaches so you can start feeling like yourself again.