Most adults suffer headaches at least occasionally. While most of them are harmless, it’s important to understand why they occur. Headaches can be caused by anything from stress to medications to genetics. For many headaches, drinking a tall glass of water may do the trick. Some call for over-the-counter methods, while others require a more customized headache treatment plan.
Don’t panic, but do get to the bottom of the issue. Here are eight things your headaches might be trying to tell you:
1. You Are What You Eat and Drink
Diet can cause or alleviate your headaches in a variety of ways. Keep a food and drink journal, and entries made just before a headache.
First, there’s dehydration. When you don’t drink enough water, your brain tissue starts to shrink and pull away from your skull. Remember, 73% of your brain is water and even a small reduction in hydration can cause problems.
Hunger can be a factor, too, so avoid skipping meals. Since glucose is what powers your body, you can’t let your blood sugar drop too low.
Second, there’s what you eat. Processed meats and chocolate contain nitrates, which can be a culprit. So can the tyramine in aged cheeses, like brie, blue, and cheddar; in baked goods that contain yeast; and in dried fruits. A less common trigger can be citrus fruits, including lemons, limes, oranges, and grapefruit.
Next, think about food additives. Some people react badly to monosodium glutamate, a salt-like compound. Aspartame and other artificial sweeteners can cause headaches as well. Beverages with caffeine can cause headaches — though for people who consume caffeine regularly, going without it can cause headaches, too.
On the other end of the spectrum, red wine is infamous for its ability to cause headaches. But contrary to popular belief, that’s not due to the tannins in the wine. Biogenic amines in red wine contain histamine and tyramine. And imbibers beware: Any type of alcohol, if overused, can cause that hangover headache.
2. You’re Stressed
Stress is the root of so many health conditions, including headaches. And when you get a headache, your stress levels may rise even higher.
Try to lower your stress by simplifying your life and using meditation techniques. While you only have so much control over your life circumstances, meditation is easy. If you’ve never done it before:
- Sit or lay somewhere quiet. Take off your shoes, empty your pockets, and close your eyes.
- Set a timer. Ten minutes is plenty, but some people meditate for hours.
- Notice your breathing. Don’t try to control it; just notice it.
- Let your thoughts pass without judging them. If you find your mind wandering, gently pull it back to your breath.
- When the timer goes off, gently wiggle your fingers and toes. - - Come back slowly, and notice how you feel.
If you often struggle to manage your stress, don’t be afraid to talk to someone. Reach out to a trusted friend or family member. Contact a mental health professional if you worry about hurting yourself or others.
3. You Need Sleep
Sleep is how your body and mind relax. Not getting enough sleep can trigger headaches, as can getting too much sleep.
The relationship between sleep and headaches is complicated. While teasing out causation is difficult, many headache sufferers also experience sleep apnea, irregular sleep patterns, and insomnia. This is particularly true for people who have migraines and tension-type headaches.
Oversleeping’s role in headaches is also poorly understood. Sometimes, these types of headaches are caused by depression or overexertion.
4. Your Bones and Muscles Are out of Whack
Have you ever gotten a headache after hunching over your laptop for too many hours? What about after waking up with your head positioned awkwardly on your pillow?
Known as cervicogenic headaches, these headaches often come with a sore neck. They can be caused by poor posture or by sitting or standing for too long.
Degenerative conditions, like osteoarthritis or a slipped disc, can cause these headaches. They can also be caused by a whiplash injury or other neck trauma.
While you may be able to solve diet- and stress-related headaches by yourself, this is one cause that calls for a visit to your doctor. An X-ray may be used to confirm the diagnosis.
5. You’re Straining Your Eyes
Staring at something for too long can cause eye strain. That, in turn, can cause dry eyes, blurry vision, neck pain, and headaches.
Eyestrain-based headaches are common among office workers. If you spend hours per day using a computer or watching television, you’re at greater risk of them.
While you may not be able to stop looking at screens all together, there are some things you can do to reduce the strain they cause:
- Always use screens in well-lit rooms
- Use a blue-light filter to keep the most damaging wavelengths from reaching your eyes.
- Take frequent breaks. At least every half an hour, look at something else for a few minutes.
- Keep screens 20-25 inches away from your eyes.
- Position screens so you look directly at them, rather than at an angle.
- Visit your eye doctor if you wear corrective lenses and suspect they’re out of date.
6. Your Sinuses Are in an Uproar
Do your headaches seem to affect not just your head, but your face? They might be allergy-related.
Sinus headaches can be caused by allergies. They can be triggered by smoke, certain foods, mold, pollen, dust mites, or nasal congestion.
While the sinuses are designed to drain naturally, they sometimes don’t. When that happens, pressure builds in your sinuses and puts pressure on your brain. The pain could radiate to your jaw or teeth.
Defeating these kinds of headaches is all about knowing your triggers. Vacuuming your house more often might be all it takes. If you get seasonal sinus headaches, ask your doctor about an antihistamine.
7. You’re Overusing Pain Relievers
In this case, the cure might not be worse than the disease — but it could be causing it. Overuse of pain relievers can result in what are called rebound headaches.
Say you’re experiencing a headache, so you take some pain medication. After the medication wears off, the headache comes back, so you take another. The cycle continues until you break it.
The labels on these medications advise you how much to take. Overdoing them can give you a rebound headache that just keeps coming back.
Rebound headaches can occur with any over-the-counter pain reliever, but acetaminophen and aspirin especially so. Prescription pain relievers can also cause rebound headaches. Those with naproxen and ibuprofen are less likely to result in them.
8. You Have More than Just a Headache
Most of the causes of headaches on this list are relatively benign. But headaches can be a sign of a serious health condition, including blood clots and infections.
If you experience any of the following, you should seek immediate medical attention:
- Severe headache you haven’t experienced before;
- Headache that awakens you from sleep;
- Headache that won’t respond to medication or treatment;
- High fever and stiff neck;
- New confusion or disorientation;
- Vertigo or balance issues; and,
- Muscle weakness or nerve symptoms, such as twitching.
Sometimes, a headache is just a headache. But if you’re experiencing them frequently or severely, or if they’re interfering with your daily activities, you should see a doctor.
The worst thing you can do is ignore your headaches. Figure out what’s actually going on, and you’ll be that much closer to feeling better.