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Causes of common headaches

Avoiding pain is easier when you understand how to prevent headaches

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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 common headaches

The most common types of headaches are tension and migraine headaches. 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).

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.

By Heidi Godman
Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

image: FG Trade/Getty Images

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