Headache Triggers

Health, Home & Family
on September 18, 2005

Tension, fatigue, eyestrain and allergies—there are many things that cause headaches. While the list of causes is long, the end result is the same—pain.

When it comes to headaches, figuring out the cause is crucial, says Dr. Merle L. Diamond, of Glenview, Ill. (pop. 41,847), who specializes in treating people with headaches.

"Any change in your regular schedule—over- or under-sleeping, skipping meals, drinking too much alcohol and changes in bodily hormones—can cause headaches," Dr. Diamond says. Other causes include misaligned discs in the spine, teeth grinding, depression, caffeine, allergies, having a cold or flu, bright light and noise.

Keeping a diary of what you eat, drink and do every day can help identify headache causes. So, if you find you get headaches after drinking red wine you know to avoid it.

If you think the more headache medication you take the better, think again. Overuse reduces the body’s ability to manage pain naturally. So when the medication wears off, the headache rebounds.

While headaches can be caused by serious medical conditions such as brain tumors, Dr. Diamond says these are rare. Even so, people over 50 and very young children with chronic headaches or a severe headache that comes on suddenly, especially when accompanied by numbness or confusion, need immediate medical care.

Avoiding headaches is about living a life of balance, says Cindy Bruggner, a registered nurse in Northfield Township, Mich. (pop. 8,252). That means eating a healthy diet and exercising.

"Exercise releases endorphins. These naturally occurring chemicals relieve pain," Bruggner says. Regularly doing things you enjoy and that are relaxing, such as reading, gardening, volunteering or socializing with family and friends, reduces the likelihood of headaches.

If you have headaches, you’re not alone. More than 40 million Americans suffer from recurrent headaches. But not all headaches are alike. Knowing about the most common types can help you and your healthcare professional develop a strategy for coping with the pain.

• Tension headaches, distinguished by a steady ache, account for 75 percent of all headaches and affect men and women. They are caused by electro-chemical instability in key brain centers.

• Migraine headaches account for 12 percent of all headaches and affect mostly women. They are triggered by an expansion of blood vessels and release of chemicals, which cause inflammation and pain. Symptoms can include a throbbing on one side of the head, vomiting and sensitivity to light or sound.

• Cluster headaches, which affect mostly men, account for 1 percent of all headaches. While their cause is unknown, they are associated with severe pain, often around one eye, and last for one to two hours and may recur over weeks or months.