By Cassie Shortsleeve. Photos: Getty Images.
Headaches have a special kind of way of ruining even the best of days. And it seems just about anything (those super elegant candles you just splurged on, your aunt’s voice, that third glass of wine...) can cause finicky little beasts to start banging tambourines in your brain.
If you feel like you have specific headache triggers, you probably do. Most headaches have them, but it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what caused the paint to come on in the first place. "There are probably 1,000 causes of headaches," says Mark W. Green M.D., director of headache and pain medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Below, the top reasons your head hurts (and how to stop the pain). And know: if your headache gets worse over time, is new or different, doesn’t stop, or is accompanied by vomiting or neurological symptoms (like numbness on one side of the body), make sure to see your doctor.
You Inherited Your Migraine
If your head is throbbing, your parents might be to blame — maybe just don't tell them that. "If you have a parent with migraines, you have a 50 percent chance of getting them yourself," explains Green. "If both of your parents have migraines, you have an 80 percent chance."
These genetics come in to play with migraines only, which is different from a tension headache. The former is usually a mild, constricting band of pressure, says Green. The latter (also called "sick headaches") tends to be accompanied by sleepiness, sensitivity to light and/or sounds, nausea, and in 15 to 20 percent of people, aura, he notes.
If migraines run in the fam, that simply means your threshold for developing a headache is low. "Everybody would get a headache if they drank a gallon of chianti, but some people might have one glass and get one," says Green. "It doesn’t take much if it runs in the family." For a little TLC, try reclining in a quiet dark room with lots of fluids, says Carolyn Bernstein, M.D., a neurologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
You Have Two X Chromosomes
File this under serious bummer: "16 to 18 percent of women exhibit migraines versus only 6 to 8 of men," says Emad Estemalik, M.D., a psychiatrist at the Cleveland Clinic. Why is life so unfair, you ask? Doctors believe it boils down to hormonal fluctuations during your menstrual cycle — dropping levels of estrogen could contribute to the pain. During pregnancy and after menopause, when there’s a more steady level of hormones, many women see improvement in symptoms, says Estemalik.
You Need a Coffee — Stat
If you drink your espresso every morning at 7 and sleep in on the weekends, you might notice a headache creep up every minute you go without java. That’s a caffeine withdrawal headache, says Estemalik. It’s part of the reason that docs actually recommend headache patients keep up with their coffee habit. He adds: "One to two cups of coffee a day, [about 100 to 200mg of caffeine] could actually be protective."
You Went to Bed at 2 a.m. Every Night This Week
"We know that people who have problems falling asleep or staying asleep are at a far higher risk of having more frequent, or at times daily, headaches," says Estemalik. Docs actually screen people who complain of headaches for sleep disorders. If you have an issue like sleep apnea (where you have trouble breathing throughout the night), there might be less oxygen flowing to your brain (hello, throbbing). Simply losing out on shuteye — scoring less than seven hours a night — can be a major contributor, too, because your body isn’t getting the rest it needs, he says. Just don’t overdo it. Green notes that too much sleep can also up the chance of headache.
You Didn’t Eat Breakfast (or Lunch) and It’s 2 p.m.
Ran out the door, been busy at your desk, and suddenly notice it’s mid-afternoon and all you have to show for it is a pounding head? Recipe for disaster. "Not eating regular meals and having fluctuating blood sugar can irritate the brain and trigger migraines,” notes Bernstein. Small meals throughout the day every few hours is your friend, says Green. It’s also important to drink up. Bernstein says that while researchers don’t have an exact reason, proper hydration proves important in keeping your head calm, cool, and collected.
You Traveled or the Weather Changed
Headed from 65 and humid to the bitter cold mountains? Extreme changes in the atmosphere’s pressure (which can happen when you go in between seasons or travel via plane) can trigger migraines. These fluctuations may affect the lining of the brain or cause inflammatory responses, says Bernstein. If you suffer migraines six or more times a month and know you’re traveling, talk to your doc about preventive meds, like Topiramate and Propranolol — they can reduce how often you come down with a headache. Meds like triptans also stop a migraine when it’s starting, says Bernstein.
When you’re stressed, your blood pressure and heart rate are elevated — and so are levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. All of this hyperactivity leads your muscles to tense and can manifest as a headache, explains Estemalik. For tension-type pains, icing your head and self-massaging your neck can soothe, explains Bernstein.
You’re Popping Advil Like Candy
Let’s be honest: We’ve all reached for a bottle of Advil when we feel a little pressure building. You’re not totally wrong in doing this. OTC meds like ibuprofen are anti-inflammatories and can help in treating the pain, notes Green, who adds these medications work particularly well the earlier you take them. But try not to rely on them more than twice a week, warns Estemalik. Rebound headaches — one of the most common causes of frequent headaches — can pop up from relying on medicine like Aleve, Advil, or Excedrin too much, he says. A better bet would be identifying the trigger that caused the pain to begin with — and trouble shooting that trigger.
Your Diet Is Full of Triggers
If you’re sick of your migraines, it might be time to delete the Chinese place around the corner from Seamless. People who suffer migraines should keep a diet low in food additives like MSG (often food in Chinese food), and nitrates and nitrites (commonly used in processed lunch meats), says Estemalik. Food and drinks with tyramine (a substance found in foods like aged cheeses and red wine) can also trigger migraines, he notes.
This story originally appeared on Allure.
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