Headaches: Frequently Asked Questions
November 12, 2012
Approximately 45 million Americans suffer from chronic headaches, and of them, 28 million suffer from migraines.
1. Are Migraines Hereditary?
Yes, migraines have a tendency to run in families. Four out of five migraine sufferers have a family history of migraines. If one parent has a history of migraines, the child has a 50% chance of developing migraines, and if both parents have a history of migraines, the risk jumps to 75%.
2. Can Migraines Be Prevented?
Yes. You can reduce the frequency of your migraine attacks by identifying and then avoiding migraine triggers. You can keep track of your headache patterns and identify headache triggers by using a headache diary.
Recalling what was eaten prior to an attack may help you identify chemical triggers.
Women who often get migraines around their menstrual period can take preventive therapy when they know their period is coming.
Migraine sufferers also seem to have fewer attacks when they eat on a regular schedule and get adequate rest.
Regular exercise — in moderation — can also help prevent migraines.
3. What Pain Medications Are Responsible for Causing Rebound Headaches?
Many commonly used pain relief medications, when taken in large enough amounts, can cause rebound headaches. Drugs once thought of as “safe” are turning up as the likeliest culprits. These include:
- Sinus relief medications
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol)
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (Aleve)
- Sedatives for sleep
- Codeine and prescription narcotics
- Over-the-counter combination headache remedies containing caffeine (such as Anacin, Excedrin, Bayer Select)
- Ergotamine preparations (such as Cafergot, Migergot, Ergomar, Bellergal-S, Bel-Phen-Ergot S, Phenerbel-S, Ercaf, Wigraine, and Cafatine PB)
- Butalbital combination pain-relievers (Goody’s Headache Powder, Supac, Excedrin)
While small amounts of these drugs per week may be safe (and effective) — at some point, the continued medication use can lead to the development of low-grade headaches that just will not go away.
4. Can Allergies Cause Headaches?
It is a misconception that allergies cause headaches. However, allergies can cause sinus congestion, which can lead to headache pain. If you have allergies, the treatment for your allergy will not relieve your headache pain. The two conditions generally must be treated separately. See your doctor to ensure proper treatment.
5. Do Children Outgrow Headaches?
Headaches may get better as your child gets older. The headaches may disappear and then return later in life. By junior high school, many boys who have migraines outgrow them, but in girls, migraine frequency increases with age because of hormone changes. Migraines are three times more likely to occur in adolescent girls than in boys.
6. What Food Triggers Headaches?
Some of the most common food, beverages, and additives associated with headaches include:
- Aged cheese and other tyramine-containing foods: Tyramine is a substance found naturally in some foods. It is formed from the breakdown of protein as foods age. Generally, the longer a high-protein food ages, the greater the tyramine content. The amount of tyramine in cheeses differs greatly due to the variations in processing, fermenting, aging, degradation, or even bacterial contamination. Tyramine is also found in red wine, alcoholic beverages, and some processed meats.
- Alcohol: Blood flow to your brain increases when you drink alcohol. Some scientists blame the headache on impurities in alcohol or by-products produced as your body metabolizes alcohol. Red wine, beer, whiskey, and champagne are the most commonly identified headache triggers.
- Food additives: Food preservatives (or additives) contained in certain foods can trigger headaches. The additives, nitrates and nitrites, dilate blood vessels, causing headaches in some people.
- Cold foods: Cold food, like ice cream, can cause headaches in some people. It’s more likely to occur if you are overheated from exercise or hot temperatures. Pain, which is felt in the forehead, peaks 25 to 60 seconds and lasts from several seconds to one or two minutes. More than 90% of migraine sufferers report sensitivity to ice cream and cold substances.
7. Is Caffeine a Headache Treatment or a Headache Trigger?
Caffeine can be both beneficial and harmful for a headache sufferer. Caffeine is a common ingredient in many prescription and over-the-counter headache drugs. Caffeine additives make pain-relievers 40% more effective in treating headaches. Caffeine also helps the body absorb headache medications more quickly, bringing faster relief.
While caffeine-containing medications can be beneficial, these medications, combined with consuming too much caffeine (coffee, tea, soft drinks, or chocolate) from other sources, may make you more vulnerable to getting rebound headaches.
8. Can Headaches Be Prevented?
Headaches can cause untold pain and suffering. But, you don’t have to resign yourself to be a headache sufferer. There are steps you can take to prevent headaches. Here are just a few ways to keep headaches at bay.
- Follow your treatment plan. Avoid taking medications that have not been ordered by your doctor.
- Reduce emotional stress. Take time to relax and take time away from stressful situations. Learn relaxation skills, such as deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation.
- Reduce physical stress. Proper rest and sleep will allow you to deeply relax so you can face the stressors of the new day. When sitting for prolonged periods, get up and stretch periodically. Relax your jaw, neck, and shoulders.
- Exercise regularly. Get at least 20 minutes of exercise three times a week. But, don’t over do it!
- Keep a regular routine. Eat meals and snacks at about the same times every day, and get enough sleep at night.
- Quit smoking.Smoking can trigger headaches and make any headache, especially cluster headaches, worse. Ask your doctor for information about smoking cessation programs in your community.
- Seek help when you are unable to cope. Talk to a friend, family member, religious or health care professional if your problems are getting to you.
- Know your headache triggers. Keep a headache diary to keep track of what triggers your headaches and avoid these triggers in the future.
- Preventive therapy. Women who often get headaches around their menstrual period can take preventive therapy when they know their period is coming.
9. What Are Abortive Medications?
Abortive medications, when used at the first sign of a migraine, can stop the process that causes the headache pain. By stopping the headache process, abortive drugs help prevent the symptoms of migraines including pain, nausea, and sound and light sensitivity. Some medications should not be used during a migraine aura; please follow the instructions of your doctor.
10. What Are Some Techniques I Can Use to Relax?
Below are a few relaxation exercises. But first, be sure that you have a quiet location that is free of distractions, a comfortable body position, and a good state of mind. Try to block out worries and distracting thoughts.
- Rhythmic breathing: If your breathing is short and hurried, slow it down by taking long, slow breaths. Inhale slowly then exhale slowly. Count slowly to five as you inhale, and then count slowly to five as you exhale. As you exhale slowly, pay attention to how your body naturally relaxes. Recognizing this change will help you to relax even more.
- Deep breathing: Imagine a spot just below your navel. Breathe into that spot, filling your abdomen with air. Let the air fill you from the abdomen up, then let it out, like deflating a balloon. With every long, slow exhalation, you should feel more relaxed.
- Visualized breathing: Find a comfortable place where you can close your eyes, and combine slowed breathing with your imagination. Picture relaxation entering your body and tension leaving your body. Breathe deeply, but in a natural rhythm. Visualize your breath coming into your nostrils, going into your lungs and expanding your chest and abdomen. Then, visualize your breath going out the same way. Continue breathing, but each time you inhale, imagine that you are breathing in more relaxation. Each time you exhale imagine that you are getting rid of a little more tension.
- Progressive muscle relaxation: Switch your thoughts to yourself and your breathing. Take a few deep breaths, exhaling slowly. Mentally scan your body. Notice areas that feel tense or cramped. Quickly loosen up these areas. Let go of as much tension as you can. Rotate your head in a smooth, circular motion once or twice (stop any movements that cause pain). Roll your shoulders forward and backward several times. Let all of your muscles completely relax. Recall a pleasant thought for a few seconds. Take another deep breath and exhale slowly. You should feel relaxed.
- Relaxing to music: Combine relaxation exercises with your favorite music in the background. Select the type of music that lifts your mood or that you find soothing or calming. Some people find it easier to relax while listening to specially designed relaxation audio tapes, which provide music and relaxation instructions.
- Mental imagery relaxation: Mental imagery relaxation, or guided imagery, is a proven form of focused relaxation that helps create harmony between the mind and body. Guided imagery coaches you in creating calm, peaceful images in your mind — a “mental escape.” Identify your self-talk, that is, what you are saying to yourself about what is going on with your illness. It is important to identify negative self-talk and develop healthy, positive self-talk.