Causes of headaches

Avoiding pain is easier when you understand how to prevent headaches

Causes of headaches and how to prevent headachesBy Heidi Godman
Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

It's hard to think about the causes of headaches when you're struggling with pain. Once you're feeling better, figuring out what leads to the agony can help you dodge it in the future. This requires you to pay attention to the environment, eating habits, and activities that spark headache discomfort.

Types and causes of headaches

The most common types of headaches are sinus, tension, and migraine headaches. Sinus headaches usually occur when there is infection or pressure in the sinuses. Tension headaches strike when the muscles in the head and neck tighten. Migraines come on when supersensitive nerve endings in the brain create pain.

But what makes the muscles tense, or causes some nerve endings in the brain to become so sensitive? That's not as well understood. Those causes of headaches can vary from person to person. But some triggers are common.

Tension headaches are often set off by:

  • stress
  • lack of sleep
  • fatigue
  • hunger
  • caffeine withdrawal
  • abrupt cessation of medications that contain caffeine, such as some pain-relieving medications like ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol)
  • weather changes
  • food and drinks, such as chocolate; processed foods that contain monosodium glutamate (MSG); or alcohol

Many of those triggers for tension headaches—especially stress, hunger, fatigue, and lack of sleep—can also set off a migraine headache. But nailing down causes of headaches in the migraine category is a little trickier; the headaches may stem from many factors, or combinations of factors. The particular combination is specific to an individual. Potential culprits include

  • being around smoke
  • certain smells
  • bright light, such as sunlight, or flashing lights
  • foods, such as aged cheeses, avocados, bananas, chocolate, peas, pork, sour cream, nuts, peanut butter, or yogurt
  • alcohol
  • changes in estrogen levels for women
  • taking certain prescription medications, such as nitroglycerin (Nitrostat), prescribed for a heart condition; and estrogen, prescribed for birth control or menopausal symptoms
  • abrupt cessation of caffeine
  • abrupt cessation of medications that contain caffeine, such as some pain-relieving medications like ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol)
  • food additives, such as monosodium glutamate (MSG) and nitrates (found in cured meats).

More serious causes of headaches

Some headaches are a symptom of an underlying physical condition. For example, sometimes a headache can signal that your blood pressure is above what's considered a normal reading of 120/80 mm Hg or lower. High blood pressure is a risk factor for developing heart disease or stroke, so make sure to get your blood pressure checked on a regular basis, especially if you experience headaches, or suspect that high blood pressure is one of your causes of headaches.

Other health conditions that may be lead to headache pain include bleeding, infection, or a tumor, although headaches are rarely a sign of more ominous disease. Contact your doctor promptly if a headache is sudden, or accompanied by fever, convulsions, fainting, or pain in the eye or ear.

How to prevent headaches

When debating how to prevent headaches, the easy answer is to try to avoid the causes of headaches in the first place. But doing that takes careful planning. You'll have to note your triggers first, and write down the characteristics of your headaches, including their frequency, duration, intensity, as well the circumstances surrounding your headaches, including:

  • your medications
  • diet
  • sleep patterns
  • activities
  • alcohol intake
  • menstrual cycle, for women
  • environment
  • stress levels
  • physical problems.

After you've pinpointed these causes of headaches, you'll begin to see a pattern, and you'll develop a better idea of how to avoid your triggers and how to prevent headaches.

image: © Dunca Daniel | Dreamstime.com