A headache is pain or discomfort in the head, scalp, or neck. There are many reasons why you get one but you may be surprised to learn that how you sit, sleep and even what kind of cheese you eat can bring on that throbbing noggin.
“Many women who come to my clinic are shocked at what’s actually causing their headaches,” says osteopath Frederick Freitag, D.O., director of headache medicine at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas.
If you know what makes your head hurt, you can often prevent it from happening in the first place.
Here’s how to handle those hidden triggers.
1. Don’t be a hothead.
If your pate starts pounding during a sunny day in the bleachers, it may be due to the heat, not because your favorite team keeps losing.
A 2009 study published in the medical journal Neurology found that the risk for severe headache increased about 7.5% for every 9˚F the temperature rose.
Lead author Kenneth J. Mukamal, M.D., an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, suggests the body may try to cool itself by sending more blood to the skin, depriving the brain of oxygen.
Head off trouble: You can’t change the weather, but you can take steps to keep cool.
Stay in an air-conditioned environment on hot days, and keep well-hydrated when outdoors or exercising.
2. Put down the pills.
Strange as it may sound, overusing pain medication can actually cause headaches.
When taken too frequently, prescription narcotics or medicines containing caffeine and antihistamines can interfere with the brain’s pain-regulation system.
That lowers your pain threshold and makes your headache feel worse, says Brian Grosberg, M.D., program director of the headache fellowship program at Montefiore Headache Center in the Bronx, N.Y.
Head off trouble: Limit pain meds to two days a week, and never take more than the label allows. Also try natural headache remedies.
3. Eat something.
On a super-busy day, you may think your headache’s from stress – but maybe you just forgot to eat.
“Your brain runs on two things: glucose, which comes from the food you eat, and oxygen,” Freitag explains. “When it doesn’t get enough of either, the brain tells you its needs aren’t getting met by firing up pain-sensitive neurons.”
Head off trouble: Make sure you eat at least every 4-6 hours.
4. Don’t choose Cheddar.
Certain foods may give you headaches instead of heartburn.
Fermented or aged products – including cider vinegar; soy sauce; sauerkraut; and cheeses such as Cheddar, blue and Swiss – contain tyramine, an amino acid that can trigger headaches by constricting and expanding blood vessels.
“People who suffer from migraines are sensitive to blood-flow changes,” says Alexander Mauskop, M.D., director of the New York Headache Center in New York City. “It may be because their nervous systems are more excitable, and changes may affect nerve endings in blood vessel walls.”
Head off trouble: Keep track of what you eat and when your headaches strike.
If you find that certain foods are triggers, try cutting them out for a while and see if it helps. If you’re craving a sandwich, choose fresh meats instead of processed.
5. Maximize magnesium.
If you’re not getting enough of this important element, you may have headaches.
Mauskop’s research has found that up to 50% of people who suffer from acute migraine attacks have low levels of magnesium in their blood.
Head off trouble: Add more magnesium-rich foods to your diet, including green veggies such as spinach, whole grains, fish, seeds and nuts.
If you aren’t getting the Daily Value of 400 mg a day, try Magnesium Infusion
6. Don’t save relaxation for vacation.
It seems counterintuitive, but a restful vacation can send you into full-on headache mode.
As the strain of everyday life dissolves, levels of the stress hormones cortisol and noradrenalin decrease, sending neurotransmitters into the brain – and this can cause blood vessels to constrict and dilate.
Head off trouble: Look for ways to decompress every day. That way, when you do relax on vacation, it won’t be such a shock to your body.
One of the best ways is to practice stress-reduction techniques such as yoga and/or meditation. A 2007 study published in Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain found that these therapies can significantly reduce the frequency and intensity of migraines.
7. Stay hydrated.
It’s easy to forget water during the day, and that makes headaches more likely.
Dehydration causes blood to becomes thicker, resulting in a reduced flow of oxygen to the brain and an increase in the migraine-triggering brain-chemical serotonin.
In a 2005 study in the Netherlands, migraine patients who drank an extra 1.5 liters of water per day significantly reduced the length and intensity of their headaches.
Head off trouble: Down at least eight to ten 8-ounce glasses of water. If you feel a headache coming on, drink some water not coffee or energy drinks.
8. Overcome period pain.
In addition to moodiness and cramps, headaches are a common side effect during that time of the month.
As many as 60% of women who are prone to migraines suffer from headache pain either right before or during their periods, usually due to a drop in estrogen, according to the National Headache Foundation.
Head off trouble: Magnesium supplements can be effective for menstrual headaches.
9. Outsmart your computer.
You’re hunched over in your chair, staring intensely at your monitor. No wonder your shoulders feel tight, your eyes feel strained, and you have a whopping headache.
A 2010 study of more than 30,000 Scandinavian teenagers found that half of the girls experienced regular headaches when they spent hours a day in front of computer and TV screens.
Head off trouble: Practice good ergonomics to prevent computer eyestrain and the headaches that come with it.
Set your monitor so the top of the screen is slightly below eye level. Take a computer time-out as often as you can (every 15 minutes is optimal, Freitag says).
Get in the habit of blinking more frequently, and use lubricating eye drops when you know you’re going to be in front of the screen for extended lengths of time.
Also, sit up straight and make sure your chair supports your neck and back, Freitag adds.
10. Change the Chanel.
If your head hurts at work, maybe it’s not the long hours but the strong scent wafting from the next cubicle.
A 2004 study by the Headache Center of Atlanta reports that almost half of all female migraine sufferers blame attacks on odors such as perfume.
That’s because nerve pathways in the nose lead directly to the center of the brain, and strong scents can set off a cascade of chemicals that bring on a headache.
Head off trouble: If you’re friendly with your cubicle-mate, tell her that although her perfume (or his cologne) is lovely, you’re very sensitive to smells.
If you don’t feel comfortable with that, make sure your office is well-ventilated with an open window or fan that blows the scent away from you.
11. Stop the nightly grind.
If you often have a headache when you wake in the morning, your doctor should check you for serious issues such as sleep apnea, in which you occasionally stop breathing in your sleep. But a lesser-known reason is clenching or grinding your teeth at night.
Known as bruxism, this problem can be exacerbated by stress, medications or poor tooth alignment, but there isn’t always an obvious reason.
Most people brux at some time in their lives, but many don’t know it, according to a 2000 research review in the journal Sleep Medicine.
Head off trouble: Ask your dentist to check for signs of tooth-grinding, including cracked or worn-down teeth.
You may be fitted with a custom night guard, which keeps your teeth from touching and helps realign your bite while you sleep.
Some people find that relaxing before bed with a warm bath, meditation or deep-breathing exercises also helps.