Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 8/11/2022
Depression: a family-sized popcorn bucket of debilitating symptoms. From brain fog to hopelessness, depression is known for having a wide breadth of symptoms to offer those with this disorder. If you’ve struggled with depression for a while, you may have noticed many symptoms, including the confusing and frustrating depression headaches.
Is your depression causing you a headache — a real one?
Most of us take for granted that depression affects our heads, but most of us assume that the effects are mostly isolated to our thoughts and feelings — not the actual, you know, headachey parts.
It’s entirely possible that a headache you’ve gotten may be related to depression. Depression could be affecting your habits and routines, and it could make you forget to drink water or skip your daily caffeine.
But how and why your depression might directly cause headaches is a complicated concept to explain.
To understand how to prevent and treat depression headaches, we first need to look at what’s going on in your skull that could be causing them in the first place. Let’s start from the top with what a depression headache is.
Depression headaches are headaches caused by depression. It’s that simple.
The thing is, depression, major depression, clinical depression, severe depression, mild depression and all the other forms of depression are mood disorders.
When people hear the phrase “mood disorder,” they typically consider the symptoms of depression that revolve around mood. That means things like decreased pleasure, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, sadness, hopelessness, pessimism or emptiness.
In actuality, depression is a more total-body disorder, and in its various forms, it can affect many other parts of your body and mind.
What parts? Well, your sleep for one. And your motivation and energy levels for another. Depression is known to induce fatigue, make you move and talk more slowly, cause insomnia and make it difficult to concentrate.
A depressed patient can see it affect their appetite and make them gain weight or lose weight.
Oh, and it can also cause aches and chronic pain, severe pain, cramps, digestive problems like diarrhea and nausea, and yes, even headaches.
We don’t really know what causes depression headaches, which is not to say we know nothing.
For instance, we know that there’s a comorbidity of migraine and depression. Instances of chronic migraine are higher in people with depression and other mood disorders.
We also know that in at least one study, more than a third of people with major depressive disorder had something called primary headache syndrome. Additionally, 40 percent had a primary headache — a headache caused by migraine, tension or other cause.
That study, which looked at a hundred depressed people, found that more than 60 percent had tension headaches and that more than a third of women had migraines.
This population-based study would suggest that mental disorders could be a risk factor in the classification of headache disorders known as primary headache disorders, and that headaches have an association with depression.
That research, however, could not identify any primary causes or even explain the relationship between headaches and depression.
And since these results were published in 2018, we may be a ways away from identifying the details in follow-up studies.
There’s not much information on the treatment of depression headaches, and when we say “not much,” we mean “none at all.”
In the last few years, research has started angling toward these questions, but as recently as 2016, authors of these important findings were calling for better clinical organization on how to assess these headaches.
What that means is that, at least for the time being, there’s no specific depression-themed headache treatment for headaches.
That treatment may include any number of medications and practices, including:
Over-the-counter pain medications (like acetaminophen or ibuprofen)
If you have comorbid depression and are experiencing new patterns of tension-type headache, severe headaches, frequent headaches or other constant or daily headache activity, it may be a sign of other issues besides depression.
Chances are, however, that your depression status (how bad your depression symptoms are and how they’re affecting your quality of life) may be a factor.
If that’s the case, it may be time to focus on the bigger picture.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, the best way to prevent depressive headaches is to treat depression. Whether you seek treatment for migraine headaches or other medical treatment for chronic headaches is secondary if you can make the headaches go away by treating the root cause.
Treating depression may require therapy, medication or lifestyle changes. People see benefits in their symptom management when they exercise more, seek interpersonal therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy support or use prescription medications to treat depressive symptoms.
The association between depression and headaches isn’t something we fully understand, but if your headache frequency and headache characteristics have changed in a way that suggests a contribution to depression, it’s time to talk to a healthcare provider about the problem.
If your depression is giving you a headache (real or metaphorical), do something about it. There are plenty of depression resources available to work on the depression and the symptoms of depression that could be causing headaches in your life.
Getting started is often the hardest part of the process.
Whether you’re looking for resources for medication, interested in pursuing online therapy as a depression treatment option or just want to speak to a health care professional about your concerns to get some better information, there’s help out there.