I Had a 12-hour Tension Headache: Here’s What I Wish I’d Known

By Tiffany Chaney

The ice pick planted itself in my brain sometime around 9 p.m. last night, and the headache lasted for 12 hours. It’s a situation I wasn’t used to, though my mother had cluster headaches throughout her life. I was out of aspirin and didn’t have the energy to drive, so I did what we usually do: shut myself in a dark room and tried to sleep it off.

I realized I had ingested a lot of coffee but little water and experienced unusual stress— producing a tension headache. So, I drank water throughout the night, took a little potassium (to soothe electrolyte imbalance) and magnesium (known to help prevent migraines), and used a cool compress to help get through the rough parts. I don’t advise anyone to take these supplements for this reason, as I took this action because I know my body. 

That said, I want to talk about the common causes of headaches we don’t often think about—since prevention is the best medicine.

What Causes Tension Headaches?

The causes of headaches vary from individual to individual, but according to Harvard Health, the most common triggers include: 

  • caffeine withdrawal (Guilty.)
  • stress (Yup.)
  • lack of sleep 
  • fatigue (Ouch, yes.)
  • hunger
  • abrupt cessation of medications containing caffeine, including some pain-relieving medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil)
  • weather changes (Feeling the storm in your bones is a thing!)
  • food and drinks, such as chocolate; processed foods that contain monosodium glutamate (MSG); or alcohol (I drank some Welch’s juice that was 50% added sugar, when I usually don’t. Oops.)

Harvard Health indicates that lack of sleep, fatigue, stress, and hunger can easily take a tension headache up a notch to a migraine headache. But what differentiates the two?

Causes of Migraine Headaches

The causes of a migraine headache can come from a combination of factors, but they are more specific than the general causes listed above for headaches. The specific combination of causes is specific to an individual and may include:

  • certain smells
  • smoke exposure
  • bright light, such as sunlight, or flashing lights (Don’t discount staring at a computer all day.)
  • foods, such as aged cheeses, avocados, bananas, chocolate, peas, pork, nuts, peanut butter, sour cream or yogurt
  • alcohol
  • taking certain prescription medications, ; and nitroglycerin (Nitrostat), prescribed for a heart condition (Due to surges in
  • abrupt cessation of caffeine
  • shifts in estrogen levels for women
  • abruptly quitting medications that contain caffeine, such as some pain-relieving medications like acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil) 
  • food additives, such as nitrates (found in cured meats) and monosodium glutamate (MSG)

Headache Prevention and Overall Health: Get Rest and Be Mindful

Prevention really is the medicine. So, what do you do to prevent a tension headache or migraine, since you don’t know you have one—until it stabs you in the brain?

Stick to a solid routine when it comes to getting adequate food and water intake, as well as sleep. Notice how your body responds to what you eat and drink, as well as the situations you find yourself in. How are your stress levels?  Consider making more “me time” by journaling or getting out in nature.

However, the biggest impactful factor for overall health may be your sleep quality. 

My sleep pattern is often biphasic, which means I sleep for one longer period and then sleep for  a shorter one. I have the best energy and still get my seven hours in. Your chronotype, or natural sleeping pattern, is as unique as you are—knowing what it is can help you maintain your overall health and boost your immune system’s defenses.

What do I wish I had known? I wish I had paid more attention to my body and my lapse in routine, but sometimes stress gets the best of us. Take the day at your pace.

If you are experiencing debilitating headache or migraine symptoms, please speak with your doctor in case there is an underlying health concern.

One thought on “I Had a 12-hour Tension Headache: Here’s What I Wish I’d Known

  1. It was a very informative article on how I get a headache. Before reading this article I never knew anything about sleep patterns. Thank you for this article Tiffany Chaney.

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