Why Your Job is Causing You Headaches—and What to Do About It

Filed in The Healthy Writer by on October 21, 2014 • views: 23874

Headaches 2People who work at the computer for hours each day—full-time writers, designers, office workers, etc.—get more headaches than other folks.

I don’t have any studies to back me up. I could be completely wrong—but I don’t think I am.

I used to work at a corporation, a really long time ago. I was in a cubicle under fluorescent lights all day long, in a room without natural light, in a high-stress environment.

I suffered from migraines about twice a week.

Most people learn to deal with it, but suffering headaches all the time saps your energy and makes life miserable. Below are nine reasons why you may be suffering from a lot of headaches, along with potential solutions to make your workday more comfortable.

1. Stress

Stress triggers headaches. A 2014 study of over 5,000 people, for example, reported that increased stress resulted in more headaches of all types.

Tips to try: A lot of jobs are stressful. You probably can’t quit your job (yet!), though if you’ve got one that’s regularly causing you headaches it may be time to think about a change. Meanwhile, build some stress-relieving habits into your day. Get up at least once every hour and get some fresh air. Try to walk outside, or take a walk around the building.

Notice your shoulders and your neck. If you feel tension, do some stretching and deep breathing. Steal five to ten minutes to draw, listen to some music, strike a few yoga poses—anything to get your mind and body to calm down a bit. Don’t wait to do this when something stressful happens—build the habit into every day to ward off stress before it gets too bad.

It also helps to be sure you’re lowering stress after you leave work. Schedule regular exercise or a massage, attend a yoga class, or take time for your favorite hobbies every week.

2. Muscle Tightness

There’s a reason they’re called “tension” headaches (at least some of them!). Though scientists aren’t sure tense muscles really cause headaches (some studies have cast doubt on that), they know there’s a connection between the two.

Tips to try: This is another one you have to head off at the pass. If you wait until you get the headache, it’s too late. Instead, stop every thirty minutes and practice some muscle relaxation. Tense and release the muscles in your shoulders. Roll your head around a few times. Lace your fingers together and stretch your arms up behind your back. Bend down and touch your toes. Get up out of your chair and twist from the waist to one side and then the other. Keep your body moving on a regular basis. Sitting for extended periods of time without moving much—along with stress—leaves you with tight muscles.

Baby Computer3. Poor Posture

We’ve learned over the past few years that sitting for hours is deadly. (Read more on that here.) Now we also know that sitting for hours increases your risk for headaches. Poor posture is usually the culprit, as it throws off the natural position of the spine.

The typical “goose-neck” pose we all get when staring at the screen (head jutting forward, shoulders hunched) increases the curve in the mid back, straining the upper neck. Constant slumping actually makes the head heavier, further straining the muscles in the neck. The result? Pain that crawls up into the head.

One study actually found that individuals suffering from headaches were more likely to have the “head-forward” posture than those who didn’t. Sitting this way also creates “trigger points” in the muscles that can cause pain and suffering at any moment.

Tips to try: Notice how you’re sitting. Put a sign up on the corner of your computer that says, “Posture!” Anytime you catch yourself slouching or with your neck far forward, correct it. Better yet, get up first. Do a few stretches. Then sit back down and sit up straight. For the ideal posture: avoid slumping, put your feet firmly on the floor, and use a good chair with back support. In addition, make sure that your monitor is positioned at eye level so you don’t have to stretch or slump to see it clearly.

4. Dry Eyes

A recent study showed that computer work actually reduces the amount of tears your eyes produce. (Read more here.) Dry eyes lead to strain and pain, which can trigger headaches. A 2012 study even suggested that dry eye diseases may be related to migraines. They also stated that dry eyes aggravate headaches.

Tips to try: Every 20 minutes, look away from the screen. If you can look outside, that’s ideal, but at least focus somewhere across the office. The key is to engage your distance vision. Keep eye drops on your desk, get an anti-glare cover for your screen, use a humidifier in dryer climates, and make sure you don’t have any vents blowing on you. Keep your monitor 20 to 28 inches away from your eyes.

Home Office5. Lighting

Overhead fluorescent lights are the worst for any working environment, particularly if you suffer from migraines and are sensitive to light and sound. A 1989 study compared offices with typical fluorescent lighting with those that had so-called “high frequency” lighting (with reduced pulsing) and found that those in the high-frequency lit office experienced half the headaches of the other group. Headaches also decreased as natural light increased.

Newer fluorescent lights are supposed to be high-frequency, and are also designed to “flicker” less often. Even if you work in an area where the fluorescents have been updated, though, you may still notice frequent headaches. Scientists still can’t say for sure that fluorescents cause headaches, but many office workers are convinced.

Tips to try: Shut off the overhead lights. (I used to do this all the time in the office where I worked and people loved it.) Invest in some floor lamps that you can put to the side of your desk and behind you, so they shine on your workspace. Choose bulbs that emit a soft light. The best solution is natural light—if you have windows in the office, try to let the light in, at least a little bit. It’s best if they’re at the side of your computer so they don’t produce glare.

If you absolutely cannot change your office atmosphere, ask your eye doctor about rose-colored glasses. Optometrists have prescribed them to counteract the effects of fluorescents. You can also ask the powers that be about “full spectrum” and “daylight spectrum” fluorescent bulbs, which are made to mimic daylight and may be more comfortable.

You might even get creative and create a makeshift “roof” for your space! Explain to your employer that you’ll be more productive if you’re not in pain!

6. Dust/Chemicals/Fumes

Most office buildings have at least some chemical fumes and dust. If you suffer headaches, chances are you are sensitive to these things. But even those who aren’t sensitive may still suffer. Poor air quality is something that affects us all, and can be very damaging to health.

The EPA states that indoor levels of air pollutants may be two to five times—and occasionally more than 100 times—greater than outdoor pollutant levels. Indoor air pollutants have also been ranked among the top five environmental risks to public health. A 2012 study found that workers exposed to indoor environments categorized as “out-of-comfort” range (with higher levels of pollutants) were more likely to suffer from migraine headaches.

The issue of getting headaches and feeling generally ill in office buildings has become so prevalent there’s a name for it—“sick building syndrome.” A 2008 study noted the syndrome “is increasingly becoming a major occupational hazard….” The EPA even has a fact sheet on it.

Tips to try: Open a window if you can. Fresh air is key to keeping indoor pollution manageable. If you don’t have a window, open the door. If the office is completely enclosed, request an air purifier. If your request is denied, purchase a small one for your personal area. Get out as often as you can—at least once every hour—for at least a few minutes. Keep your working area clean and dusted. At least once a week, go over the surfaces with a green cleaning solution and clean off your keyboard and monitor with computer-safe solutions.

One of the best things you can do is bring in green plants. Studies have found they help absorb chemicals in the air like formaldehyde and benzene. Here are 14 plants that can clean the air of toxic chemicals. You can also try aromatherapy—a little peppermint can wake you up and clear your sinuses, for example, which may help prevent headaches. (Find more tips on aromatherapy for the office here.)

7. Dehydration

We often forget to drink enough water throughout the day. Particularly if you’re in meetings or knee-deep in a project, you may forget to quench your thirst. This isn’t good news for your head.

A 2012 study found even mild dehydration caused headaches and other problems like mood changes, loss of focus, and fatigue.

Tips to try: Keep a glass (or bottle) of water at your desk, and drink throughout the day. Anytime your urine appears anything but nearly clear, you need more.

Kermit Tired8. Lack of Sleep

Have you noticed that when you don’t get a good night’s sleep you’re more likely to get a headache the next day? It’s no coincidence. A 2010 study found that sleep deprivation increased levels of certain proteins connected with migraine pain. Research reported in the journal Headache indicates that:

  • headaches have been linked with a wide range of sleep disorders
  • sleep complaints have been identified as risk factors for severe headaches
  • insomnia is reported by two-thirds of headache clinic patients

Tips to try: Get a good night’s sleep on a regular basis. Establish a bedtime routine and stick to it, even on weekends. Make sure your bedroom is comfortable and quiet—and technology-free! (Get the cell phone out of your bedroom—studies have linked it to sleep problems.) If these steps don’t work, talk to your doctor about other possible solutions. If you feel your job is pushing you too hard and you can’t afford to get a good night’s sleep, remember—no job is worth your health. Even small changes can help.

9. Too Much Sugar, Salt and Fat

Oh how we love to snack at the desk! Boredom, excess sitting, lack of sleep, and stress all cause changes in the brain and body that demand snacks—and not the good ones, either. Hormonal changes drive us to seek out sugar, salt, and fat.

These foods can dramatically change the goings on inside us. Blood sugar levels spike and drop. The body releases more of some hormones and less of others. If we pile on caffeine, or skip meals, we’re asking for even more trouble.

All these changes can trigger a headache.

Tips to try: If you get enough sleep and move around at least once every thirty minutes, your body will be less likely to crave unhealthy junk. Be sure to take a break for lunch, too, and don’t skip breakfast. Then, bring healthy snacks with you. These include nuts, fruit, tea, small squares of dark chocolate, yogurt, boiled eggs, popcorn, and raw veggies. (Find more ideas for healthy munchies here.)

Tea7 Natural Remedies for Headaches

Though it’s best to prevent headaches from occurring in the first place, once you have one, you need relief. Over-the-counter pain relievers work for most people, but over time, if you take too many, they can actually cause a rebound effect—resulting in more headaches.

There are a number of natural remedies that may provide you with some relief. Here are seven of them:

  1. Herbal teas: Green, cinnamon, ginger, and chamomile all have some anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties. They may help soothe your headaches. Read more here.
  2. Rosemary oil: A 2010 study found that rubbing some on your temples helps ease pain. Rosemary is a natural source of a substance that acts like a Cox-II inhibitor.
  3. Magnesium: Make sure you’re getting enough. Studies have found deficiencies in those suffering from migraines.
  4. Vitamin B2: Studies found that participants who took 400 mg a day of vitamin B2 slashed their headaches in half.
  5. Butterbur: This stuff is amazing—I use it myself. At least three studies have shown it reduces migraine attacks. Try 50 mg three times a day. Feverfew and white willow have also shown to be effective in studies.
  6. Try a footbath: We’re not quite sure yet what the connection is between feet and head pain, but many people find relief with a footbath. Add a little lavender and peppermint oil for extra healing.
  7. Fish oil: Some headaches are caused by a deficiency in omega-3 fatty acids. Consume more walnuts, almonds, salmon, flaxseed, anchovies, and other fatty fish, or take a regular fish oil supplement.

Do you suffer from frequent headaches? Have you found things that help? Please share them with our readers!

Christopher Wanjek, “Stress Causes Headaches, Scientists Confirm,” Live Science, February 19, 2014, http://www.livescience.com/43507-stress-causes-headaches.html.

Watson D, Trott P. Cervical Headache: An Investigation of Natural Head Posture and Upper Cervical Flexor Muscle Performance. Cephalalgia, August 1993 vol. 13 no. 4272-284, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8374943.

Koktekir BE, et al., “Dry eyes and migraines: is there really a connection?” Cornea, December 2012; 31(12):1414-6, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22710496.

A. J. Wilkins, et al., “Fluorescent lighting, headaches, and eye strain,” Lighting Research and Technology, March 1989; 21(1):11-18, http://lrt.sagepub.com/content/21/1/11.abstract, and http://www.essex.ac.uk/psychology/overlays/1988-76.pdf.

“Questions About Your Community: Indoor Air,” EPA, http://www.epa.gov/region1/communities/indoorair.html.

“Nasal Allergies and Hay Fever Tied to More Migraines in Study,” Health Day, November 26, 2013, http://consumer.healthday.com/head-and-neck-information-17/headaches-health-news-345/briefs-emb-11-25-08-00et-allergies-migraine-cephalalgia-ucinn-release-batch-1033-682482.html.

Gretchen E. Tietjen, et al., “Headache symptoms and indoor environmental parameters: Results from the EPA BASE study,” Ann Indian Acad Neurol., August 2012; 15(Suppl 1): S95-S99, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3444215/.

Sumedha M. Joshi, “The sick building syndrome,” Indian J Occup Environ Med., August 2008; 12(2):61-64, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2796751/.

Maia Szalavitz, “Bad Mood, Low Energy? There Might be a Simple Explanation,Time, January 19, 2012, http://healthland.time.com/2012/01/19/bad-mood-low-energy-there-might-be-a-simple-explanation/.

American Headache Society, “REM sleep deprivation plays a role in chronic migraine,” ScienceDaily, June 23, 2010, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/06/100623085528.htm.

Jeanetta Rains, “Sleep and Headache Disorders,” Headache, November 4, 2010, http://www.headachejournal.org/view/0/SleepAndHeadacheDisorders.html.

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Comments (4)

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  1. Shakira Felton says:

    I’m a custodian in for the last past month I been having a headache that I only get when I’m in the building what could I do

    • Colleen says:

      Please check with your doctor, Shakira. It depends on what kind of headaches you’re having (stress/tension or migraines or allergy-based) and what’s causing them. You’ll probably have to do some detective work to find out the source. If it is building-based it could be a new chemical they’re using somewhere if something new was installed? Open windows, maybe try wearing a dust mask, get outside for breaks…but please do check with a medical professional.

  2. Chere Hagopian says:

    I once had a bout of horrific headaches that nothing could get rid of. It lasted about a month, and the doctors had no idea what the cause was. It turned out to be number 8, lack of sleep. Once I started getting more than 5 or 6 hours of sleep a night, the headaches disappeared. More sleep is my number one go-to solution when I get a headache anymore. (And Tylenol, if that doesn’t work.)

    • Colleen says:

      What a great example, Chere! Thanks for sharing. That will do it for me, too—that and allergies and stress!