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Headache Triggers

The question for most all headache sufferers is, "Is there any relief"? From migraines to tension headaches, it comes down to coping with fighting pain. For those of us who have dealt with headaches, it seems as if we have tried everything to rid ourselves of pain. Sometimes the strategies work and sometimes they don't. What can we do to find relief from the throbbing, aching, and pounding? It may be as simple as looking at our lifestyles and identifying triggers that can start a headache.

What is a headache trigger? A trigger can be anything from what we eat or drink, our environment (light or odors), stress, or a combination of factors. By simply examining what these triggers are and where they may enter our lives, we may gain some insight to why headaches begin and possibly learn to divert these headaches before they ever start.

Dehydration is a major cause of headaches. 75 percent of Americans are chronically dehydrated) and the coffee and soda we consume only adds to the problem (B. Levine, 2004). Did you have a cup of coffee this morning? Did you have more than one? "You can get headaches from too much caffeine and from caffeine withdrawal. Withdrawal starts from 8 to 16 hours after the last ingestion, which explains why many people get a headache toward the end of their workday, or when they wake up in the morning." (Healthsquare, 2004). Tyramine is a natural substance found in the body that assists in regulating blood pressure. It is also found in some foods. Tyramine can be found in chocolate, some cheeses, sour cream, soy sauce, yogurt, and some yeast extracts. Some preservatives like nitrites and monosodium glutamate (MSG) can also be triggers to headaches. Common foods containing these chemicals could include: processed meat products, potato chips, dry roasted nuts, salad dressings, and mayonnaise.

Yet another culprit for triggering a headache is alcohol. Alcohol can cause headaches through multiple factors: it can expand blood vessels, enhance dehydration effects, and some alcoholic beverages may contain the chemical tyramine. These beverages can be the cause of what is known as the "hangover headache". Watching how much alcohol you consume and being sure to drink plenty of water along with the alcohol can be an important step in helping avoid headache pain.

Stress is another very common trigger for headaches. When we are involved with stressful situations, we have a tendency to tighten up various muscle groups. It can start from your back, move to your shoulders, ascend to your neck, and deposit that tension in your head. This tension limits the blood flow to the affected areas and builds up waste products in the tissues, thus producing a headache.

Relieving some of this stress can often be as simple as taking the time to identify some of the causes of your stress. It can be hard to pull yourself out of a situation to give it a good look, but if you can identify some of these stressful situations, you may be able to establish some strategies to relieve or possibly avoid that particular stress trigger.

For many, being able to talk through difficult and stressful events with another person — be it a close friend or a trained professional — is a helpful process. Spend some time thinking about how much impact the situation is having on you and decide if seeking the ear of another person might be beneficial for you.

Consider relaxation techniques and/or exercise. Relaxation can work if given a fair chance to succeed. Exercise is important because it can distract us from the causes of stress, release the build-up of chemicals in our body, relax tightened muscles and tissues, and develop and maintain a healthy body.

A final headache trigger is physical environment. These factors can include: temperatures (both hot and cold), light factors (brightness), and odors. These triggers can vary depending on the type of headache, (stress versus tension versus migraine headaches), and may be hard to avoid. Preplanning can help things, such as having sunglasses available for bright, sunny days, for example.

Types of headaches: (from the American Counsel for Headache Education)

  1. Tension type headaches: Tension headaches would be considered the stress headaches causes from muscle and tissue tightness. A dull pain across both sides of the head is common.
  2. Migraine headaches: Migraine headaches can involve throbbing pain usually isolated to one side of the head. Other symptoms can include: nausea, dizziness, and sensitivity to light.
  3. Cluster headaches: Cluster headaches involve sharp pains to one side of the head. These headaches can last days or even months at a time. You should consult with your doctor if you think you are suffering from Cluster headaches.
  4. Other types of headaches: Other types of headaches can include sinus headaches and headaches associated with use of other medications. If you are unsure about the causes of your headaches or possible side effects from other medications, please consult your doctor.

Although this may seem like a lot of information, begin looking for 'triggers' by using small steps to look at your lifestyle. Are you eating or drinking things that can lead to headaches? Can you reduce or eliminate some of these triggers? How does stress influence your situation? Can adapting or changing the way you handle situations alleviate the tension of these situations and circumstances? Would exercise or relaxation help? Consider it "food for thought". Being able to identifying headache triggers provides you with the possibility of preventing a headache before it starts.

Please remember that it is very important to consult with your doctor if you are experiencing severe and/or persistent headache pain.


B. Levine (2004) Hydration 101: The Case for Drinking Enough Water, Retrieved May 25, 2004 from:

What Triggers Headaches (n.d.) Health Square, Retrieved May 25, 2004 from:

How Headaches Differ (2004) American Counsel for Headache Education, Retrieved May 26, 2004 from:


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