6 simple lifestyle changes that may help prevent headaches
About 16% of the world’s population has a headache on any given day, according to research published in The Journal of Headache and Pain. Neurologists speculate the number of people experiencing headaches has gone up due to stress and lifestyle changes as a result of working from home more consistently.
“A lot of patients went from walking to and from the office and having that physical commute to now sitting at home,” says Dr. Britany Klenofsky, assistant professor of neurology at the Center for Headache and Pain Medicine at Mount Sinai. “The lack of separation from work and home has affected people in more than one way.”
Experts suggest the following tips to reduce the chances of developing headaches in the middle of a busy work day.
Focus on your neck
Looking down at a computer or a phone for an extended period is a common habit in WFH culture that came as a result of slouching in chairs and resting laptops on laps. When the head is tilted down, it creates tension that affects the neck and jaw muscles, and can signal to the brain to feel pain, experts explain.
“If you can minimize the strain at the top of the neck, then you decrease significantly the likelihood of ending up with a headache,” says Helen Tufui, founder of The Headache Clinic in New Zealand.
Sit up straight
Tufui also says to monitor your posture. The goal is to keep a neutral spine with a slight arch in the lower back. Placing a towel behind the back can also help people sit up straight, as well as investing in an ergonomic desk chair or a laptop stand.
Changing posture may seem uncomfortable at first, but Tufui compares it to working out: it’s normal for your back muscles to ache a bit at first, but it’s a sign they are working to keep you upright and will strengthen in the future.
Take standing breaks
Experts suggest taking periodic breaks to stand up and walk around—even if it’s just around your workstation. This can help alleviate back and neck stress and give your eyes and brain a break from the screen.
“Start with standing up every few hours, then make it every hour,” Klenofsky says. “It’ll build up into a habit.”
Maintain a sleep routine
Sleep plays a role in stress and brain health, and therefore, the likelihood of developing headaches.
Klenofsky recommends going to bed and waking up around the same time every day. Even sleeping in more on the weekends and getting up earlier on weekdays may disrupt sleep cycles and contribute to headaches, she says.
“It’s very important to keep a strict sleep schedule,” Klenofsky says. “In the very beginning of the pandemic, I had a lot of patients coming in suffering from headaches … We realized that it was because of that shift … They were no longer going in early to [work].”
Sleep hygiene is key, says Tufui. She recommends “having a really good routine at the end of the day where you do the same thing, which ensures that when it is time to sleep, your body knows what [to do].”
Eat regularly and hydrate
“The migraine brain gets hangry and irritable,” Klenofsky says. If you can’t escape back-to-back calls for lunch, experts suggest eating small snacks throughout the day.
Klenofsky recommends high-protein snacks, such as boiled eggs or a handful of nuts.
Additionally, it’s easy to forget to hydrate when you WFH, but drinking plenty of water will help prevent headaches. Experts recommend six to eight glasses a day for most adults.
Track your headaches
Neurologists suggest keeping track of when you have headaches, which can help you and your doctor pinpoint which lifestyle factors, including sleep, exercise, and nutrition, could be playing a role.
“It helps us to come up with a plan of whether or not we need to work on not just treating them in the moment, but preventing them,” Klenofsky says. “It speeds up the process of finding relief sooner rather than later.”