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Health Information Headache Triggers

Headache Pain and the Trigger Effect

Headaches are a pain — literally. And virtually everyone gets them at one time or another, some more frequently than others. A staggering 45 million Americans suffer from chronic, recurring headaches according to the National Headache Foundation.

Why are headaches such a huge problem for so many people? You might say it’s the “trigger effect.”

Sources of Tension

Tension headaches, the most common type of headaches in adults and children, are the result of a contraction, or tightening, of the muscles around the head, neck and/or jaw. But this painful muscle contraction doesn’t just happen: It is typically triggered by an external source.

Common triggers for tension headaches include the following:

  • Stress
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Overworking
  • Not getting enough sleep or changes in sleeping patterns
  • Alcohol use
  • Missing meals or not eating enough
  • Overexertion
  • Holding your head in one position for an extended period of time
  • Neck and back strain due to poor posture
  • Poor sleeping position
  • Clenching or grinding your teeth
  • Environmental factors (fumes, toxins, carbon monoxide, etc.)
  • Overuse of over-the-counter or prescription medications, including aspirin and acetaminophen
  • Eye strain

Tension and other types of headaches, such as migraine, can also be triggered by specific environmental factors in your home or workplace, such as secondhand tobacco smoke, strong odors from household chemicals or perfumes, pollution (including vehicle exhaust), pollen or excessive noise.

Food for Thought

Other headache-causing culprits include certain foods, such as those containing caffeine (withdrawal from caffeine can also cause headaches), tyramine, nitrates (a preservative) and monosodium glutamate, or MSG (a common food additive).

  • Examples of foods that may contain tyramine: alcohol (especially red wine), chocolate, foods with vinegar (ketchup, salad dressings, etc.), organ meats (kidney, liver), sour cream, soy sauce, yogurt
  • Examples of foods that may contain nitrates: bacon, bologna, canned ham, corned beef, hot dogs, pastrami, pepperoni, sausage, smoked nuts
  • Examples of foods that may contain MSG: Chinese food, dry roasted nuts, frozen food, mayonnaise, potato chips, salad dressings
  • Examples of food that may contain caffeine: Sodas, coffee, tea, chocolate, cocoa

“Knowing your triggers, and avoiding those things as much as possible, may actually help to reduce the frequency and severity of your headaches,” says Madhu Soni, MD, a neurologist at Rush University Medical Center.

Because triggers vary from person to person, it’s best for people to keep track of what factors provoke their particular headaches. Soni suggests keeping a headache diary: “Every time you get a headache, write down the things that may have triggered it, along with the location, duration and severity of the pain,” she says. “It will be useful information to discuss with your physician.”

The ABCs of Headaches

Most headaches stem from the same physical place. Surprisingly, it’s not the brain. In fact, headache pain is typically related to the sensitive covering of the brain, specific nerves or the large veins and arteries connected to the brain. The arteries may be affected by illness, or they may be jarred by a physical trauma, such as a blow to the head, triggering a sudden headache (also called an acute-onset headache).

But in spite of their common origins, all headaches are not created equal. There are many different types of headaches, each with its own characteristics and accompanying symptoms, including the following:

  • Tension headaches are the most common types of headaches among adults and children. They typically occur on both sides of the head and are characterized by a mild to moderate tightness or pressure; you may feel like a tight band is wrapped around your head.
  • Migraine headaches often, but not always, occur on one side of the head and are usually throbbing or pounding in quality. Migraines may start out mild, but generally reach moderate to severe intensity. They can last anywhere from four hours to three days, and typically occur one to four times a month. “The classic description of a migraine sufferer is a person seeking a dark, quiet room in which to lie down,” says Madhu Soni, MD, a neurologist at Rush University Medical Center.
  • Sinus headaches cause a deep, constant pain in the cheekbones, forehead or bridge of the nose. The pain is often accompanied by other sinus symptoms, including swelling in the face, nasal discharge and a feeling of fullness, or pressure, in the ears.
  • Hormone headaches in women are often associated with changing hormone levels that occur during menstruation, pregnancy and menopause. Birth control pills (which chemically induce hormone changes) can also trigger headaches in some women.
  • Cluster headaches are more rare. They occur on a daily basis for weeks, sometimes many times during the day and may then go away for months or a year. The pain from cluster headaches is severe, located in one eye and associated with tearing, redness and sometimes, a droopy eyelid.

While headaches can be painful, the good news is that they are rarely a sign of a serious medical problem. Still, there’s no need to let your headaches disrupt your life. See your primary care physician if you are concerned about the frequency or severity of your headaches. To make an appointment with a physician at Rush, call (888) 352-RUSH (7874) .

To find out more about when you should see a doctor about headaches, read “Your Headaches: Nuisance or Cause for Concern? ” in the Summer 2007 issue of Discover Rush.


Neurological Care at Rush

The neuroscience program at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois, is considered among the nation’s best. From using deep brain stimulation to eliminate the tremors of Parkinson’s and other movement disorders to applying minimally invasive approaches to treating the spine and brain, experts at Rush are helping to revolutionize care for patients at Rush and around the world.

At Rush, our team is on the leading edge of advances in medicine, whether it’s a new minimally invasive technique or a novel drug. Because Rush is an academic medical center, our patients benefit from all of the latest innovations, including some that are unavailable anywhere else in the world.

For more information about care for neurological conditions visit the Neurological Care home page.

Looking for More Health Information?

  • Visit Discover Rush’s Web Resource page to find articles on health topics and recent health news from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois. You will also find many helpful links to other areas of our site.

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