Causes of Headaches at Work

Headaches not only cause people to miss work, but if they do stay at work, their work level is often reduced.

In fact, according to an older study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, people lose approximately 4 days per year due to headaches—the majority being either migraines or tension-type headaches.

There are a number of reasons why you may be prone to headaches at work. That being said, for most of us, leaving work is simply not an option, unless your headache is disabling. The good news though is that by being knowledgeable about potential work-related headache triggers, you may discover your unique ones—the first step to easing your headaches and preventing them from occurring in the future.

How Headaches May Develop At Work
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Headache Triggers at Work

There are a number of potential triggers that may cause a headache to develop at work. These include:

  • The stress of your daily job
  • Poor sleep; waking up too early on workdays
  • Caffeine withdrawal; drinking no coffee one day or an amount that is less than usual
  • Skipping breakfast or lunch
  • Environmental triggers like the light/glare from your computer screen or loud noises
  • Mechanical problems (for example, poor posture at your desk)

Stress is probably the one we relate to the most. Stress in the workplace usually refers to cognitive stress, like the stress of completing a difficult mental task at work. There is also psychological stress at work, like the emotional stress of working with others, or the anxiety related to your work effectiveness.

Stress has a lot of effects on a person's headaches. For instance, stress can not only trigger a migraine or tension headache, but it can lead to their chronic development. Stress can also worsen headache-related disability and quality of life.

How stress triggers headaches is not fully understood, although scientists believe it may make certain people more vulnerable to environmental triggers. Stress may also lead to the release of certain inflammatory chemicals, like histamine, prostaglandins, and nitric oxide, that trigger inflammation and pain receptors in the nervous system.

Other Potential Headache Triggers at Work

According to a 2013 study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, other possible triggers for your headache at work include:

  • Psychological and social triggers like role conflict
  • A work environment that is not very social
  • Bullying from your boss or co-workers

It's also interesting to note that people who have overall lower job satisfaction, and people who experience a lack of decision control or control over their work intensity, have more severe headaches. 

Combating Your Headache at Work

If you do develop a headache at work, it's best to tackle it right away. For instance, if you have a history of moderate to severe migraines and normally take a triptan to treat them, be sure to have that medication ready, whether that means you carry one in your purse or wallet or have one in your desk drawer. If your headache is mild, you may consider trying non-pharmacologic strategies first, such as:

  • Applying a cold compress to the forehead, temples, and/or neck
  • Drinking a tall glass of water
  • If your work has a restroom, turning off the lights and closing your eyes for ten to twenty minutes
  • Gently massaging your temples and area of pain on your head

If your headache is still not eased, you may consider taking an over-the-counter painkiller like Tylenol (acetaminophen) or a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID), like ibuprofen. Be sure to talk with your healthcare provider though before taking medication, as they are not safe for everyone.

Keep in mind too, if your headaches are occurring more than once a week or if you are taking headache medications more than twice a week, you may be a candidate for daily preventive migraine therapy.

A Word From Verywell

In the end, if you are prone to developing headaches at work, try to determine the cause, consider keeping a headache journal to help you tease everything out.

Also, remember to take care of yourself and your basic needs. Eat breakfast. Take time for a healthy lunch. Step outside for some fresh air a couple of times throughout the day. Exercise before or after work, and when you get off of work, let your mind take a break from work life.

If the stress of your job is overwhelming you, consider stress management techniques like relaxation therapy, meditation, or yoga. Talk with your personal healthcare provider in order to devise a proper headache plan.

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

By Colleen Doherty, MD
 Colleen Doherty, MD, is a board-certified internist living with multiple sclerosis.