woman experiencing headaches and facial pain from caregiving related stress

Headaches & facial pain caused by emotional distress

Case Study: Joan*

Dr. Tanenbaum, DDS, MPH

Dr. Tanenbaum, DDS, MPH

Joan was referred to my office due to her daily headaches and facial pain that had continued to get worse despite taking over-the-counter medication on a daily basis and treating herself to a few massage sessions. She had seen her family doctor who had assured her that there was nothing terribly wrong, that the headaches and facial pain were a result of stress, and that she should start exercising more frequently and try to get more sleep.

Joan came to me when she could no longer tolerate the pain. After careful listening and a full examination, it was clear to me that her pain likely had a muscle origin. For Joan, along with countless other people in America and across the globe, her aching facial, jaw, and neck muscles were undoubtedly the result of an ongoing burden that had begun to dominate her life. Joan’s particular burden was that six months prior, her husband had suffered a debilitating stroke and she had become his sole caregiver.

Joan’s world had changed overnight. She was now a full time, worrier, cook, chauffeur, appointment maker, and sole provider of her husband’s physical and emotional needs. Although she took on these responsibilities with love and commitment, it was clear that she had been unprepared for the enormous challenges she faced. As the weeks and months passed, friends and family retreated to their own worlds, and she was left to fill the voids in her husband’s life, knowing that this job came with an unknown future.

As a result of her daily caregiver obligations, Joan’s sleep suffered, her independence all but disappeared and her ability to exercise and stay healthy dwindled to almost nothing. Suddenly her neck ached, headaches emerged, and she found herself gritting her teeth during the day as she tried to maintain patience and deal with the physical effort it required to get her husband showered, dressed, and fed.

Joan’s headaches and facial pain were clearly the result of muscles that were in crisis as a result of a ‘brain under siege’ and muscle fatiguing behaviors (clenching/raised shoulders…) that were prompted by the realization that she was alone and unprepared for an unknown future. The more Joan and I talked, the more I realized that not only was she suffering with pain, but she was lonely and depressed as well.

To help address Joan’s sore and painful jaw, face and neck muscles, I set her up with number of common therapies. These included “physical self regulation techniques” which help patients identify and change the behaviors that they have developed as a result of ongoing life challenges and stressors.

Just becoming aware of when the brows are furrowed, the lips are tense, the shoulders are raised, the jaw muscles are braced, or the teeth are clenched is the first step. I then taught her a number of exercises and breathing techniques that reduce muscle tension and can lead to significant pain relief over time. To complement these self-care efforts, we added medications, muscle injections, oral appliances, and physical therapy.

Though as a result of these efforts Joan felt somewhat better (in spite of the fact that nothing had actually changed in her life), there clearly was more that had to be done to help Joan not fall back into her acute pain state once formal treatment in my office stopped. That is when I introduced her to The Caregivers Space, founded by Adrienne Gruberg.

By joining The Caregiver Space (CGS), she became part of a community of other caregivers eager to interact, share stories and be a source of support. She found a lot of free services geared exclusively to a caregiver’s needs and links to other organizations and websites for caregivers, as well. As a result of taking advantages of the ideas and services shared on the CGS, her feelings of being alone started to dissipate and I feel that Joan is on the mend both physically and emotionally.

If you are in a similar situation, or know someone who is, please direct him or her here to The Caregiver Space.

By Donald R. Tannenbaum. This was originally published on ‘s website.

Written by Guest Author
The Caregiver Space accepts contributions from experts for The Caregiver's Toolbox and provides a platform for all caregivers in Caregiver Stories. Please read our author guidelines for more information and use our contact form to submit guest articles.

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  1. I literally felt myself break!

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