Research recently suggested that red wine, whiskey, and bourbon cause migraines, but if you suffer from tension headaches maybe you should stay away from math. In a recent study, 91 percent of chronic tension-type headache (CTTH) sufferers who worked on anagrams and math problems for an hour developed a headache. The researchers were looking to prove that stress alone may trigger a headache in people with CTTH. Furthermore, the researchers identified key headache warning signs, including increased muscle tension in the head and neck and an increased general sensitivity to pain.
The study, published in the international journal Cephalalgia, involved 71 subjects divided into three groups: one composed of 25 healthy subjects, and two composed of 23 CTTH sufferers each. All participants were asked to complete a one-hour task, and the researchers measured three factors before, during, and after the task. These three factors were the stress, muscle tension, and pain sensitivity present in each subject. The healthy group and one of the CTTH groups were exposed to the stressful task of solving math problems and anagrams for an hour. The other CTTH group sat comfortably and read magazines for an hour.
The results showed that while only 4 percent of the healthy subjects and 17 percent of the CTTH sufferers who read magazines developed a headache during the task. As mentioned earlier, a whopping 91 percent of CTTH sufferers who worked on anagrams and math problems developed a headache. All participants who worked on the problems reported increased stress as the hour continued, and the magazine readers did not. Hence, the researchers successfully isolated stress as the headache trigger.
Measurements of muscle tension and general sensitivity to pain revealed something interesting. All CTTH sufferers developed increased muscle tension and general pain sensitivity before the onset of their headaches; higher levels of muscle tension were present at baseline — before the hour-long task was undertaken–and increased pain sensitivity appeared during the first 20 minutes of the task, before most of the headaches began. In other words, muscle tenderness and increasing pain sensitivity are predictive of a headache about to occur.
If you suffer from chronic tension-type headaches induced by stress, the knowledge gained through this experiment opens up some doors for you. Try a simple self-massage on your neck and head before you take on a stressful task. When you notice that your neck muscle tension is high, take a pain reliever, this will hopefully stop the headache before it starts. Finally, if you feel like you have a headache coming on, then take a break.
In the meantime, unless you are a mathematician, we highly recommend you stay away from algebra, geometry, or long division if you suffer from tension headaches.
Time to buy a calculator.