Slideshow: Surprising Headache and Migraine Triggers
More Slideshows from eMedicineHealth
Watch and learn from these additional pictures slideshows.
Headache Trigger: Your Boss
Yes, your boss really can give you a headache. Anything that boosts your stress level can make you more vulnerable to tension headaches or migraines. The exact mechanism for these headaches is unclear and may involve different factors. A heightened sensitivity of nerve pathways in the brain that relay pain may play a role. Changes within the brain itself may also be involved in migraine headaches.
Headache Trigger: Warm Weather
When the temperature changes, so does the likelihood of developing a migraine. Whether it's a heat wave or a cold snap, the change can trigger a headache. Sunny, hot days are another common culprit. Rain or changes in barometric pressure also may lead to headaches. While you can't change the weather, you can wear sunglasses on a bright day, minimize dehydration, and avoid midday sun.
Headache Trigger: Strong Scents
Strong smells -- even nice ones -- trigger migraines in many people. Why this happens is unclear, but the odors may stimulate the nervous system. The most common culprits are paint, perfume, and certain types of flowers.
Headache Trigger: Hair Accessories
How you wear your hair can take a toll on your head. A tight ponytail may strain the connective tissue in the scalp, leading to a hairdo headache. Headbands, braids, and tight-fitting hats can create the same effect. If this is the cause of your headache, letting your hair down usually brings fast relief.
Headache Trigger: Exercise
Strenuous exercise, including sex, can sometimes lead to headaches. Examples include jogger's headache and sex headache. These types of headaches are most common in people who are susceptible to migraines.
Headache Trigger: Poor Posture
You don't have to work up a sweat to build pressure in the head and neck muscles. Slouching at your desk will do the job, too. Common forms of poor posture include hunching your shoulders, using a chair with no lower-back support, staring at a monitor that is too low or too high, and cradling a phone between your ear and shoulder. If you have frequent tension headaches, take a good look at your workspace.
Headache Trigger: Cheese
A migraine trigger for some people is aged cheese, including blue cheese, cheddar, parmesan, and Swiss. The culprit may be a substance called tyramine. The longer a food ages, the more tyramine it contains.
Headache Trigger: Red Wine
Tyramine is also found in red wine and other alcoholic drinks. Other ingredients in wine may contribute to headaches as well. Because alcohol increases blood flow to the brain, the effects may be even more intense. If red wine is a trigger for you, but you'd like to enjoy a glass on special occasions, ask your doctor about taking a preventive dose of medication.
Headache Trigger: Cold Cuts
Processed meats, such as cold cuts, have two strikes against them. They often contain tyramine, as well as food additives such as nitrites, which may trigger headaches in some people. Headaches caused by food additives are usually felt on both sides of the head (in contrast to a classic migraine, which strikes one side at a time).
Headache Trigger: Skipping Meals
Hunger headaches aren't always obvious. If you skip a meal, your head could start to ache before you realize you're hungry. The trouble is a dip in blood sugar. But don't try to cure a hunger headache with a candy bar. Sweets cause blood sugar to spike and then drop even lower.
Headache Trigger: Smoking
Smoking is known to trigger headaches -- and not just in the person holding the cigarette. Secondhand smoke contains nicotine, which causes blood vessels in the brain to narrow. Giving up cigarettes or reducing exposure to secondhand smoke appears especially helpful to patients with cluster headaches. These are extremely painful one-sided headaches that can also cause eye and nose symptoms.
Headache Trigger: Caffeine
For the headache-prone, caffeine fits firmly into the category of "can't live with it, can't live without it." In moderation, caffeine is often beneficial -- in fact, it's found in many headache medications. But chain-chugging coffee can be a cause of headaches. And, if you're hooked on caffeine, cutting back abruptly may only make things worse. Caffeine withdrawal is another headache trigger.
Headache Solution: Identify Triggers
If you can identify your most common triggers, you may be able to cut off headaches before they start. The best way to accomplish this is through a headache diary. Keep a daily log of foods you eat, stressful events, weather changes, and physical activity. Whenever you have a headache, record the time it starts and stops. This will help you find patterns, so you can try to avoid your personal triggers.
Headache Solution: Manage Stress
Many people are able to manage migraines or tension headaches through stress-busting strategies. Although you can't control the stressful events that come your way, you can alter your response to those events. You may need to experiment with techniques such as meditation and massage to find what works for you.
Headache Solution: Stretch Your Legs
Moderate exercise is a powerful stress reliever. Walking is a great choice because it delivers an extra defense against tension headaches. When you walk, the swinging motion of your arms tends to relax the muscles in your neck and shoulders. Breaking up those knots may help diminish the root of some headaches.
Headache Solution: Eat Regular Meals
Eating balanced meals throughout the day will help keep your blood sugar on an even keel. That means no more hunger headaches. Aim for meals and snacks that pair a protein with a complex carbohydrate, such as peanut butter on whole-grain bread or chicken breast with brown rice. And be sure to drink enough fluids -- dehydration is another common headache trigger.
Headache Solution: Physical Therapy
Physical therapy combines exercise and education to reduce pain and improve range of motion. In people with tension headaches, physical therapy may help the neck muscles and establish new habits that lead to better posture.
Headache Solution: Medication
Over-the counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen are effective against many types of headaches. But avoid taking these drugs continuously, as this can result in medication overuse headaches or rebound headaches -- headache pain that returns as soon as the pills have worn off. For frequent or severe headaches, talk to your doctor about prescription medications that help prevent them.
When to See a Doctor
Any new headache that is unusually severe or lasts more than a couple of days should be checked by a doctor. It's also important to let your health care provider know if the pattern of your headaches changes -- for example, if there are new triggers. If you have a headache accompanied by vision changes, movement problems, confusion, seizure, fever, or stiff neck, seek emergency medical care.
More Reading on Headaches and Migraines