Living With Chronic Pain

Stop These 18 Headache Triggers

Headaches can be a minor irritant to a debilitating event. Either way they can often be stopped in their tracks by knowing their cause. Something as innocuous as forgetting that morning cup of joe to sleeping in late can be the trigger. Here’s a list of possibilities to watch for and ideas for minimizing their impact.


Perhaps the biggest culprit of all, stress is a trigger for almost 70% of people with migraines. Add to that the perpetual worry of when the next attack will strike and it can feel like a never-ending, exhausting cycle. Start by making a list of what creates stress and tension in your life, then work towards reducing these triggers. Biofeedback, relaxation therapy, meditation, exercise and maintaining a consistent sleep schedule can be extremely helpful in managing stressors by changing how the body physiologically responds to the stress. This then reduces its ability to cause a headache.

Relaxing after stress

Think relaxing on the weekends after long hours during the week is the answer? It’s only part of the answer. As the tension of the week subsides, levels of stress hormones drop, which causes a rapid release of neurotransmitters (the brain’s chemical messengers). These send out impulses to blood vessels to constrict and then dilate, which causes that pounding headache. Instead, make time to decompress throughout the week – such as a yoga class or taking a long hot bath listening to music while reading a good book, rather than squeezing it all into the weekend.


Years ago I couldn’t figure out why I had a raging headache every Sunday around noon. It was crazy. What made this day so different? Turned out it was my pledge to slow things down with my young daughter and demand at least one day to relax, stay at home and de-stress with games, movies, baking and conversation. All the other days I was either at the office or going out, which always included drinking my daily dose of caffeine. Sundays I just never thought about it. Since caffeine causes blood vessels to constrict; without it, they dilated instead causing them to widen and bulge out with each heartbeat, creating that pounding effect. Once I realized the catastrophic consequences of drinking coffee 6 days a week, I cut back. While enjoying my morning ritual it’s now limited to one cup so if I stop for a day or two my head doesn’t suffer. 


Although many consider red wine the principal trigger for alcohol headaches, studies show other types of alcohol are just as likely- and sometimes even more frequently are the culprit. Alcohol is a diuretic – it acts on your kidneys to make you pee more fluid than you’re taking in. Losing fluids like this can lead to dehydration, which can cause headaches. Drinking alcohol also relaxes your blood vessels, leading to increased blood flow to the brain which can trigger headaches.

Pent-up anger

Muscles in the back of the neck and scalp tense up, causing a tight band-like sensation around your head. This is a sign of a tension headache. Next time anger seems to be winning the battle, breathe deeply and slowly. Breathe in through your nose for a count of five, hold your breath for a count of five, breath out for a count of five, hold there for a count of five. Relaxing before reacting should help relieve your head and neck muscles in no time.

Poor posture

Slouching causes tension in the upper back, neck and shoulders, which can lead to a headache. Typically, the pain throbs in the base of the skull and sometimes flashes into the face, especially the forehead. Change positions frequently, sit up straight and support your lower back with a lumbar roll. Consider using a headset if you spend a lot of time on the phone, as holding a handset between your head and shoulder can strain muscles and cause headaches as well.

Strong scents  

Think housework is causing the headache? You could be right. Household cleaners, along with perfumes and fragranced air fresheners, contain chemicals that can bring on headaches. Avoid heavy perfumes and strong-smelling soaps, shampoos and conditioners. Use fragrance-free products whenever possible. If a colleague’s perfume is the culprit, put a fan on your desk at work to inconspicuously keep the odor away.

Sleep schedule

The connection between migraine and sleep is undeniable. Sleep renews and repairs all parts of the body- including the brain-so it makes sense that when sleep becomes irregular, attacks can be more frequent. Something else to note when it comes to sleep: nearly half of all migraine attacks occur between 4:00am and 9:00am, putting people at a greater risk for developing a sleep disorder. Get to bed at the same time every night, for 7-9 hours of sleep. Eliminate TV, texting, reading, and listening to music while in bed. Read more about how to get better sleep here.


Women are three times more likely to have migraine than men, and up to 75% of women find that they experience attacks around the time of their menstrual period. This is called a “menstrual migraine,” due to changing estrogen and progesterone levels. Changes in lifestyle and diet may do the trick. If not, talk to you healthcare provider about other options that can stabilize hormone levels and prevent future attacks. 

Changes in the weather

Storms, excessive heat and changes in barometric pressure are common weather related triggers. Pressure changes that cause weather changes are thought to trigger chemical and electrical changes in the brain. This irritates nerves, leading to a headache. High humidity and heat can easily lead to dehydration, another common trigger. We can’t control the weather, but we can adjust how we deal with it. For example, if it’s the middle of July in Arizona, take care of outdoor needs in the early morning hours before it gets too hot or at night, when it’s a bit cooler. Wear a mask, adhere to social distancing guidelines and walk in the mall now that they’re opening up.


Your turkey and cheese sandwich or a small bar of dark chocolate might be a tasty lunch, but beware of the headache that could follow. All these foods contain chemicals that can bring on a headache. There’s a laundry list of foods known to trigger headaches, the most common ones are foods that contain histamine and MSG, chocolate, cheese- especially aged ones like Brie, and other dairy products, artificial sweeteners (e.g. aspartame), caffeine, processed meats and fish, and anything with a strong smell. Once identified, avoid them as much as possible.

Dehydration and hunger

For some, even the slightest hint of dehydration can be the fast track to debilitating head pain. Dehydration affects the body on all levels and can cause dizziness, confusion, and can even become a medical emergency. Always carry a water bottle and keep track of your fluid intake (daily recommendation is two liters), Sometimes an attack can be stopped in its tracks by simply drinking a glass of water. Research has also shown that skipping meals is frequently linked to the onset of headaches. It remains uncertain how this happens but it’s thought to be related to falling blood glucose levels. Keep a few crackers handy for a quick fix.


For many headache sufferers, natural light is the enemy. This condition is called photophobia, and is actually one of the criteria used to diagnose migraines. Both natural, bright light and fluorescent or flickering bulbs are problematic, making it difficult to spend time anywhere. Carry a pair of sunglasses at all time for use outdoors. When faced with artificial light, sit closer to windows and avoid flickering lights or sources of glare. Green light is the only band of light that has been shown not to aggravate migraine – finding bulbs that emit green light or sunglasses that deflect all but green light could be helpful.

Medication Overuse

As I stated in last weeks post the very medicine you turn to for help could actually be causing your headaches- a phenomenon known as medication verse headaches (MOH).

Grinding teeth / TMJ disorders 

Most adults clench their jaw and grind their teeth (known as bruxism) when stressed or more often, when sleeping at night. This makes the muscles in your jaw contract, which can crack and shift teeth and damage the temporal mandibular joint due to the increased pressure on the joint. Night guards, medications and learning to deal with stress better can help. If you feel yourself clenching and a headache coming on just open your mouth a little, and close your lips. This will immediately relieve the urge. Talk to your healthcare provider or dentist about available treatment options.

Sex headaches

It’s a standing joke that headaches are used as an excuse to avoid sex, but for many men and women, coital headaches that come on at the height of passion are a real and distressing problem. They are thought to be due to pressure building up in the head and neck muscles. Pain can occur during foreplay or just before orgasm, and last a few minutes or up to an hour. They are clearly inconvenient, but usually harmless. Barring any medical reason take an over the counter pain reliever before foreplay, change to a more comfortable position before climax or better yet, add a massage to the excitement.

Ice cream

Anyone who’s experienced that sharp, stabbing head pain after biting into an ice cream cone knows it’s no joking matter. It’s caused by cold material moving across the roof of your mouth and the back of your throat. Anything frozen can have the same effect. Even though they rarely last more than a minute or two, that time can seem like an eternity when the pain is excruciating. Try eating slow, small bites so the mouth stays warm while the food is absorbed or use your tongue to massage and warm up the roof of your mouth to ease it faster. 


Sitting in front of a laptop or desktop for long periods of time can trigger migraine and tension-type headaches. This is especially true if you have a low-resolution monitor which can cause eye strain). Put a glare screen over the monitor to decrease light reflecting on the screen and use a bigger font size so it’s easier to read. As stated above, good posture is important, too. And don’t forget to get away from your computer for a few minutes every hour.

Figuring out what triggers your headache can make a huge difference in the number you suffer each month. Keep a diary, make a list, talk to your healthcare provider. Whatever it takes to stay pain free.

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