Back Pain, Headaches and Stress

It isn’t very often that a true insight into our own health hits, but I believe I had one a few weeks ago.

Long time readers of this blog know that I tackled and overcame my back pain issues years ago. After I admitted that I didn’t understand what caused my back pain, I did a lot of research and came to the conclusion that the pain was rooted in stress.

The back pain was most likely to flare up when I tried unsuccessfully to control something beyond my control. Once I saw the pattern I was able to learn how to release control and the back pain went away. Then for a few years, I rarely got any back pain. When I did, I would reflect on what I was trying to control, change my response and the pain would go away.

After tackling the back pain, I went after headaches. After 3.5 years of quantified self tracking, I came to the conclusion that stress was likely the cause of my headaches. It that case, it was the tracking that made things worse. My Last Post on Headaches goes into more detail on my thoughts.

Some Questions

Earlier this month the back pain started up again. This wasn’t a concern since I was confident that I could address it in a way to make it go away. But some interesting questions popped into my head.

  1. I believe stress is the root of both my back pain and headaches. Yet I can’t recall a single time where I had both back pain and a headache simultaneously. Why?
  2. Is the stress associated with back pain different from the stress associated with headaches?
  3. My headache pain typically starts very early in the morning (~3 AM). My back pain would most likely hit in the early afternoon (~ 3 PM). Why?

I chewed on these questions for a few days and I think I discovered the answers.

stress pencil

Photo by Light Collector

Back Pain = Stress Triggered by Environment

The back pain was triggered by an environmental or external stress. It was me pushing against the world and not getting the response I desired. From my January 2011 post How I Figured Out the Cause of My Back Pain:

Every date that I wrote down was during a period that I didn’t feel in control. The stock market went against me or I got stuck in traffic or something similar.

The two examples that came to mind the quickest were stressful events triggered by something external and outside my control: the stock market and traffic. Earlier this month I was forced to leave my both my home and venture off into an area of the country unknown to me. This explains the back pain as my response to an external stressor.

Headaches = Stress Triggered By Self

The headaches were frequent when I was trying to force an internal change. Primarily and ironically, getting rid of the headaches. Endless n=1 tests compounded the stress that I was failing at solving the riddle of the headaches. Once I gave up the pressure to the solve the headaches, they almost completely went away. And this is why I rail against Quantified Self.

Headaches were common when I was trying to change myself. They occurred when I didn’t see an external barrier. Like the back pain, the roots were the inability to accept things outside my control. The solution lies in acceptance.

Just a Theory

This is my first pass at a theory to explain the differences between stress induced back pain and headaches. It might be incomplete or wrong. I’d love to hear for others that have dealt with both back pain and headaches and if they’ve noticed a pattern. I’m also interested in neck pain, as it doesn’t line up neatly with either side.

As for the first question. Why don’t I ever get both at the same time? Just a guess but I’d bet that my subconscious is assigning a primary source of blame and pursues the path of pain that accomplishes its goal of distracting me from what it sees as a greater pain – which is the feeling of being powerless.


My Last Post on Headaches

An interesting thing happened last week after my post Quantified Self and False Pattern Recognition. In that post I mentioned the benefit I have received from ending the daily tracking.

I don’t think I’ve had a single headache this entire year that has woke me up in the middle of the night that was intense enough to prevent me from returning to sleep. During the 2.5 year Quantified Self experiment, I averaged 7.5 bad headaches a month.

Guess what happened next? I started getting headaches. Just a few nights, but they seemed to come out of the blue. The last time that happened was in November. From the post Life After Quantified Self.

For three weeks after I ended the daily data collection, I didn’t get a single headache. That is a record. Even in my month with no coffee that never happened. In fact I didn’t even get my first headache of the month until someone asked how it was going and then I became aware that I was having a record month.

Stress is likely the cause of the headaches. Posting about headaches is stressful. Responding to comments about headaches is stressful. Talking about headaches is as well. So I am done. This is the last post I will be doing on my headaches. I will also be closing out the comments on all the older headache posts.

Perception of Pain

Right now I am reading the book Scattered: How Attention Deficit Disorder Originates and What You Can Do About It by Gabor Mate M.D. If that name sounds familiar it is because he also wrote the book The Stress Disease Connection, which I blogged about in December 2012.

In Scattered there is a passage describing how we perceive pain varies depending upon the environment. In situations where you aren’t alone, pain can be more intense. The book uses the example of a skier who breaks her leg. If the break happens when the person is with someone the pain will likely be higher than if the person is alone. If the hiker is alone, the risk of freezing to death could dampened the pain enough to mobilize the skier to move.

Although my headaches were never an emergency situation, the passage stuck with me. This blog and the data I exposed publicly via Quantified Self created a situation where I was never alone with my pain. Daily quantification of pain makes one hyper focused on pain. Only when I stopped Quantified Self, stopped blogging about headaches and stopped talking about headaches did the pain go away.



Stress As a Cause or a Symptom?

I hesitate to say to that stress was the absolute cause of the headaches. I don’t know, nor do I think I ever will. And that is OK. I do know the headaches were unrelated to diet and weather. Focusing on reducing stress and improving my response to stress is the way forward and that can’t be quantified.

So this is the last post I will be doing on headaches. I will no longer be responding to any ideas or suggestions related to headaches. Thank you for following this journey. Maybe you got something of value from it.


Quantified Self and False Pattern Recognition

I was watching Episode 3 of the new Cosmos show when Neil deGrasse Tyson said something that reminded me an awful lot of the Quantified Self movement.:

The human talent for pattern recognition is a two-edged sword. We’re especially good at finding patterns, even when they aren’t really there — something known as “false pattern recognition.”

The show was speaking about how our distant ancestors looked up into the night sky and tried to draw meaning from what they saw when a comet passed overhead. But this quote could easily apply to a modern man tracking a few points of data in a spreadsheet trying to find some hidden meaning.

I tracked my headaches, sleep quality and coffee intake for 2.5 years trying to find patterns. The single pattern I found was a decrease in headache frequency when I sharply reduced coffee intake. Look at the chart below.


This was my comet in the sky. And guess what? The pattern was false.

From the moment I stopped doing Quantified Self my headaches plummeted and I didn’t change my coffee intake. With the exception of the month where I was playing Candy Crush, the headaches have almost all but disappeared. I don’t think I’ve had a single headache this entire year that has woke me up in the middle of the night that was intense enough to prevent me from returning to sleep. During the 2.5 year Quantified Self experiment, I averaged 7.5 bad headaches a month.

Why have the headaches disappeared? And how did they disappear all while consuming high levels of coffee? I don’t have a spreadsheet to tell you the answer, but I’ll speak from the gut. The headaches came from stress. One huge source of the stress was Quantified Self. Tracking something daily that I was failing at publicly clearly played a role.

How did I deal with stress? The dopamine hit of another espresso always made me feel a little bit better. But the fact I couldn’t control my coffee intake also made me feel worse. So when I was able to better manage stress and reduce my coffee levels, my headache levels dropped. Coffee was likely a symptom and not the cause.

Today I am drinking a fair amount of coffee. My sleep is perfect and my headaches seem to be gone. Had I not rejected Quantified Self, I never would have learned that coffee intake was a false pattern recognition. I also suspect a lot of the conclusions others are drawing from their Quantified Self experiments are false pattern recognitions.

The rest of the quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson:

We hunger for significance, for signs that our personal existence is of some special meaning to the universe. To that end, we’re all too eager to deceive ourselves and others.


I May Have Finally Found a Headache Cure

Last December I reframed my headache question. After almost 3 years of trying to prevent headaches, I decided instead to look into how to eliminate the headache once it arrived. The full list of things I’ve tried is on the post Headache Remedies That Work?, but the takeaway is that the things that work for others have no affect on me. That includes aspirin, Tylenol, Aleve, Ibuprofen and numerous anti-histamine sinus medications.

Before I reveal what I’ve found that has been helping, I want to say that since I quit playing Candy Crush, my headache levels have dropped considerably. Candy Crush headaches have been reported by a number of people online. I am not sure if it head position, the fast moving game layout or some form of screen apnea. Screen apnea is a term coined by Linda Stone that means to have shallow breathing or unconsciously hold your breath while in front of a screen. It is also called email apnea. I know I sometimes have this problem.

What has helped reduce headache pain? Baking soda. I mix a teaspoon of baking soda in water and drink it. Within two minutes, my headache intensity drops. It is unbelievable. At that point the headache usually just fades away. Sometimes the baking soda trick only lasts for a short period and then the headache intensity increases. But it never goes back to where it was, so I have a follow up baking soda and water drink.

This headache hack isn’t perfect, but for me it is the only thing I’ve tried that works. And it works quickly and it is dirt cheap. I also think I could stack this hack with the Amazing “Back to Sleep” Hack, which includes a pinch of sugar and salt mixed together.


Why is baking soda working? Ray Peat and his followers like baking soda as a supplement for increasing CO2. From the article Protective CO2 and aging.

An adequate supply of calcium, and sometimes supplementation of salt and baking soda, can increase the tissue content of CO2.

If this is right then increasing the amount of CO2 in the tissues is a clue. When I was working on this post I found the page How Do You Increase The CO2 Level in The Blood? on the Peatatarian forum. User kasra posted this:

When I asked Ray if carbonated drinks could increase tissue CO2, he replied “In a crisis situation, it (or baking soda in water) can be helpful, but it’s more effective to rebreathe in a paper bag.”

I’ll test the paper bag idea out next, but the good news is my headache level has been super low lately, so it may be a away before I can try it.


Candy Crush Headaches

I hesitate to post this, but I need to hear from others. As some of you know I sometimes experience night headaches that wake me up in the early hours of the morning. When I stopped quantified self, my rate of headaches dropped considerably. For a few months things were going OK.

Then I read about how the Candy Crush Saga game was sweeping the country in popularity.

Normally I don’t play video games, but I like to have some awareness of popular pop culture. For example, I watched an episode of Jersey Shore just so I would know what a Snooki was. With video games, I watched my nephews play Call of Duty and I myself played a few rounds of Angry Birds. So I decided to see what Candy Crush was all about.

Candy Crush headache

Candy Crush Saga – The crack of video games

Candy Crush turned out to be the most addicting game I’ve ever played. And I don’t even like video games. When I installed it, I figured I’d knock out a few levels and then never play again. Like I did with Bejeweled a decade ago. That was the plan. But this games gets in your head. I couldn’t stop playing. Thankfully, I never connected the game with others on Facebook.

During the month of December I installed and uninstalled the game three times. I watched video tutorials on YouTube to guide me through levels. I was seeking out Candy Crush tips from friends and family. And I was getting way more headaches. I was fully prepared to blame the increase in headaches on the season. Shorter days means I tend to consume more caffeine and caffeine in high levels is a known trigger for me. But I uninstalled Candy Crush two weeks ago and my headaches have dropped all the way down to pre-Candy Crush levels.

The article 13 Surprising Headaches Triggers by Diana Vilibert provided a clue.

If you’you’ve ever found yourself slouching over your phone playing Candy Crush for hours, you may want to give it a rest. The brightness of your screen activates the retina and the nerves behind the eye, which can cause eye strain and head pain—and the same goes for your laptop.

I was playing Candy Crush from my iPod, which is a device I mostly use for music and only look at briefly. I was suddenly spending an hour or two, often before bed bent over playing. During the time I was playing the games the most, I got what I am calling Candy Crush Elbow. Crushing candy is tough work. 😉

I’ve been clean and Candy Crush sober for two weeks now and am feeling better. Anyone else get headaches from this game or others?