Headache
Symptoms, Causes, Treatments, Questions & Related Topics


Top 7 Headache Causes

1. Dehydration

Dehydration and fluid loss can cause the brain to shrink temporarily, sometimes leading to headaches and migraines.[1] Headaches driven by dehydration are often felt all over the head or at the front, back, or side of the head. Other symptoms that can accompany a dehydration headache include dry mouth, dizziness, confusion, fatigue, and reduced urination. Increased heart rate and low blood pressure are other symptoms of dehydration.

A dehydration headache can be relieved by drinking water, which causes the brain to rehydrate and return to its normal state. Common causes of a dehydration headache include excess alcohol and caffeine intake, diarrhea and vomiting, and excessive sweating caused by exercise or hot temperatures.[2]

2. Lack of Sleep

Lack of sleep can put undue stress on the body and organs, causing a number of health conditions that produce headaches. Evidence suggests that factors such as obstructive sleep apnea, medication overuse, and psychiatric comorbidities can all disrupt sleep patterns and cycles and could trigger headaches as a result.[3]

Headaches caused by sleep deprivation can be managed by taking steps to address the underlying root cause of your sleep problems. See your doctor to receive treatment for medical conditions such as sleep apnea, and change your sleep routine as needed to feel the benefits of adequate sleep. Changes to your sleep environment might also help you get more sleep. Try using blackout curtains to keep out sunlight or wearing earplugs to cancel outside noise.

3. Stress

In stressful situations, the brain releases chemicals, including adrenaline and cortisol, that prepare the body for fight or flight. This chemical reaction can lead to blood vessel changes that trigger headaches after the stressful moment has passed. Long-term stress can result in more frequent headaches and painful migraines, along with additional symptoms that can include tense muscles, chest pain, insomnia, and digestive upset.[4]

Headaches triggered by stress can be treated by eliminating certain stressors from your life or by practicing healthy stress-reduction techniques. Deep breathing, meditation, yoga, and Tai Chi are just some evidence-based methods shown to reduce stress effectively.[5] Exercise, good nutrition, and reduction in caffeine and alcohol intake are other ways to reduce stress.

4. Hunger

Skipping meals or not eating enough food can lead to hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar.[6] Hypoglycemia produces symptoms of sweating, nausea, headache, and migraine. Hunger headaches might be caused by hormones the body releases in response to low glucose levels.

Prevent headaches triggered by hunger by eating breakfast, lunch, dinner, and small snacks throughout the day. Certain foods are also found to cause headaches and migraines: dairy products, chocolate, foods containing MSG, and processed meats that contain nitrates.[7] Eliminating these foods from your diet might help reduce headaches.

5. Alcohol

Alcohol is a natural diuretic that causes frequent urination and the excretion of vitamins and minerals from the body. These effects can lead to dehydration and chemical imbalances in the body that trigger headaches. A headache is also a common symptom of a hangover, along with nausea, fatigue, and dizziness.[8]

Some alcohols contain sugars and additives, such as food coloring and preservatives, that can trigger headaches. Headaches triggered by alcohol can be prevented by reducing alcohol intake and avoiding alcohols that contain excessive amounts of additives.

6. Sinusitis

Sinusitis, also known as a sinus infection, develops when the areas around your nasal passage become inflamed and swollen, causing symptoms of congestion, runny nose, fatigue, and headache.[9] Headaches caused by sinusitis are felt on the forehead and cheeks and around the eyes.

Migraines and sinusitis share many of the same symptoms, but migraines can produce additional symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to noise and light. Common causes of sinusitis include the cold and flu, allergies, and nasal polyps.

7. Hypertension

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a condition in which the force of blood against the walls of blood vessels is too high. Hypertension can cause damage to artery walls and can narrow blood vessels, increasing the risk for heart-related problems, including heart attack and stroke. Hypertension is commonly caused by underlying medical conditions such as diabetes complications, thyroid problems, and chronic kidney disease.[10]

Hypertension can cause blood vessels to leak in the brain, resulting in excess pressure and swelling. This can cause headaches, along with symptoms of nausea, blurred vision, dizziness, and confusion. Headaches triggered by hypertension tend to pulsate and occur on both sides of the head, and they can worsen with increased physical activity.[11]

6 Possible Health Conditions Related to Headaches

1. Meningitis

This infection triggers inflammation in the brain and spinal cord to cause headache, fever, neck pain, and back and muscle aches.[12]

2. Stroke

A stroke is the sudden interruption of blood flow to the brain and is characterized by symptoms that include stiff muscles or paralysis, confusion, and headache.

3. Heart conditions

Stroke, hypertension, and arrhythmia are all heart conditions found to trigger headaches.

4. Brain tumor

A brain tumor is a growth made up of abnormal cells in the brain that may or may not be cancerous; they can produce symptoms of dizziness, vertigo, and headache.

5. Fibromyalgia

This syndrome causes muscle tenderness and pain and might be accompanied by symptoms that include fatigue, forgetfulness, and headache.

6. Coronavirus (COVID-19)

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that spreads from person to person, and that shares many of the same symptoms of the flu, including fever, fatigue, and headache.[13]

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Headaches

  • When did you start experiencing headache symptoms?
  • How often do your headaches occur?
  • Do any other symptoms accompany your headaches?
  • What triggers cause your headaches?
  • What factors improve or worsen your headaches?
  • Have you recently suffered trauma or injury to the head?
  • What medications do you currently use?
  • How many hours do you sleep every night?
  • How many meals do you eat throughout the day?
  • What beverages do you normally drink throughout the day?
  • How do you normally manage stress?
  • Have you recently been in close contact with anyone who tested positive for COVID-19?
  • Did you recently attend a large event or gathering at which many people were present?
  • Have you come within close proximity to anyone outside of your household?

Headache May Also Be Known as

  • Migraine
  •  
  • Head pain
  •  
  • Tension headache
  •  
  • Stress headache

Sources

  1. National Center for Biotechnology Information. Water, Hydration and Health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2908954/
  2. National Library of Medicine. Dehydration. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000982.htm
  3. National Center for Biotechnology Information. Sleep-related headache and its management. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24132786
  4. National Center for Biotechnology Information. Headache (chronic tension-type). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2907789/
  5. Common Health. Relaxation techniques for stress relief. http://www.commonhealth.virginia.gov/documents/wellnotes/RelaxationTechniquesforStressRelief.pdf
  6. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Low Blood Glucose (Hypoglycemia). https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/preventing-problems/low-blood-glucose-hypoglycemia
  7. National Library of Medicine. Migraine. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000709.htm
  8. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol Hangover. https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh22-1/54-60.pdf
  9. National Library of Medicine. Sinusitis. https://medlineplus.gov/sinusitis.html
  10. National Center for Biotechnology Information. Identifiable Causes of Hypertension. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK9624/
  11. National Center for Biotechnology Information. Secondary headaches attributed to arterial hypertension. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3829292/
  12. National Library of Medicine. Meningitis: Symptoms. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMHT0024782/
  13. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms of Coronavirus. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/symptoms-testing/symptoms.html

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