Headaches are one of the most common medical complaints in the world, and the second most common type of pain reported in the United States (second only to back pain).1It’s estimated that up to one in 20 adults has a headache every (or nearly every) day, whereas far more are impacted by tension-related headaches at least occasionally. Up to 80 percent of women and two-thirds of men in developed countries suffer from tension headaches.2
Sometimes headache pain is mild and merely irritating, but oftentimes it is severe or chronic. Frequent headaches can seriously damage your quality of life, and even threaten your job. The World Health Organization reports that both social activity and work capacity are reduced in 60 percent of people who suffer from tension headaches.3
Headaches occur because areas around your head — including your scalp, blood vessels, and brain lining — contain pain-sensitive nerve endings that send impulses to your brain, telling it you’re in pain. But what triggers this pain in the first place is of far more interest, because when you identify your triggers, you can often keep headaches from occurring in the first place.
10 Surprising Headache Triggers
1. Summer Weather
- : Warmer temperatures may increase your risk of headache pain, with one study showing the risk of severe headache increases about 7.5 percent for each 9-degree F rise in temperature.
- The study also found that low air pressure may slightly increase your headache risk.
- : Strenuous exercise such as running, weightlifting or playing tennis can trigger headache pain, either during or after the activity. This may be because vigorous exercise dilates blood vessels in your skull. Any strenuous activity, including laborious work or sex, can have a similar effect. Exercise headaches in particular are more common if you exercise in hot weather or at a high altitude.
3. Your Hairdo
- : Certain hairstyles put a strain on your scalp, often leading to headache. This includes any “do” that pulls on your scalp, such as a ponytail, braids or even wearing headbands or barrettes.
4. Poor Posture
- : Slumping over in your chair in front of a computer or hunching your shoulders while you drive puts a great strain on your upper back, shoulders, neck and face. This muscle tension and strain can trigger headache pain.
5. Aged Cheeses
- : These are high in tyramine, which forms when protein breaks down and can trigger headaches in people who are sensitive to it. The more aged the cheese, the more tyramine it contains. Cheeses that may contain high levels of tyramine include blue cheeses, Brie, cheddar, feta, Gorgonzola, Muenster, mozzarella, Parmesan, Swiss, and processed cheese. Other foods that contain tyramine include processed meats, canned soups, avocados, red wine, onions, pickles, and olives.
6. Lunchmeat and Hot Dogs
- : These are some common sources of nitrites, which are used as a preservative, coloring and flavoring in processed meats. Processed meats also contain tyramine, making them a double-whammy for some people.
7. The Weekend
- : After a long, stressful week, stress hormones like cortisol and noradrenaline decrease, leading to a release of neurotransmitters that constrict and dilate your blood vessels and release pain-causing chemicals that trigger headaches. These are known as “let-down headaches.”
8. Skipping Meals
- : The drop in blood sugar that occurs when you skip a meal can cause numerous physical symptoms, including lightheadedness, weakness and headaches.
9. Hormonal Changes
- : Fluctuations in hormones like estrogen and progesterone can trigger headaches, and many women can predict headache occurrences according to their menstrual cycle.
10. Too Much Headache Medication
- : Ironically, frequent use of pain medication for headaches (including prescription and over-the-counter varieties) may alter pain pathways in your brain and actually trigger what’s known as re-bound headaches. This creates a vicious cycle of more medication, and more headaches. Generally, taking headache medication more than two or three times a week regularly may put you at risk of re-bound headaches.
Avoiding your triggers is one of the best ways to prevent headache pain; if you’re not sure what your triggers are, keep a headache diary, noting the date and time of each headache along with any notes about what may have caused it (foods you ate, medications taken, activities, stage in menstrual cycle, weather, etc.). In time you may notice a pattern that will help you identify your triggers.
5 Natural Headache Remedies
There are many safe, natural solutions that can help ease headache pain when it does occur. Since many headaches are stress-related, many of these focus on relaxation and stress relief.
- Relaxation training: Various techniques can be used to promote a sense of calmness in your mind, leading to stress reductions and improvements in blood pressure, heart rate and pan. Some of the most popular methods include meditation, biofeedback, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery and visualization.
- Acupuncture: Research suggests adding acupuncture to normal care for headaches results in greater pain relief, and may also reduce headache frequency and intensity.5
- Tai Chi: This ancient marital art, sometimes called “moving meditation,” involves slow, specific series of movements that help calm your mind and promote inner focus. Research suggests tai chi helps to reduce the impact of tension headaches.6
- Massage: Massage therapy has been found to help reduce the frequency of tension headaches, as well as reduce the intensity and duration of pain. Massages of the back, shoulders, head and neck, along with craniosacral therapy, which involves manipulation of the skull and spine, may help relieve headache pain.
- Spinal Manipulation: Visiting a chiropractor for spinal manipulation may also offer relief for tension headaches. Research suggests spinal manipulation may offer better relief than massage, and is as effective as commonly used prescription headache medications.7
These are but a few of the natural strategies available. Keep in mind that virtually any technique that helps you to feel relaxed – a warm bath, soft music, a long walk – is likely to result in improvements in headache pain. On the other hand, most stressors will increase it, as this prompts physical responses in your body, including muscle tension and neurochemical changes that can trigger and worsen pain.
You can learn, through cognitive behavioral therapy, to consciously control your body’s reactions to stressful situations so that it has less of a physical impact. When used in addition to the relaxation methods noted above, cognitive therapy that helps you cope with stress and pain can produce marked improvements in headache pain naturally.8
1. The American Academy of Pain Medicine, AAPM Facts and Figures on Pain
2. World Health Organization, Headache Disorders
3. World Health Organization, Headache Disorders
4. Neurology. 2009 Mar 10;72(10):922-7.
5. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Headaches and CAM
6. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Headaches and CAM
7. J Manipulative Physiol Ther. 2001 Sep;24(7):457-66.
8. Society of Clinical Psychology, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Chronic Headache