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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.

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

Tension headache triggers

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

Environmental factors can trigger tension and other types of headaches, such as a migraine or sinus headache:

  • Secondhand smoke from tobacco products
  • Strong odors from household chemicals or perfumes
  • Pollution (including vehicle exhaust)
  • Pollen or other common allergins, such as ragweed, dust or mold
  • Excessive noise

Foods that can cause headaches

Certain foods can also cause headaches, such as those containing caffeine, tyramine, nitrates (a preservative) and monosodium glutamate, or MSG (a common food additive). Below are some examples of foods that contain these common headache-inducing ingredients.

Caffeine: Found in sodas, coffee, tea, chocolate, cocoa. Withdrawal from caffeine can also cause a headache.

Tyramine: Found in alcohol (especially red wine), chocolate, foods with vinegar (such as ketchup and salad dressings), organ meats (such as kidney and liver), sour cream, soy sauce, yogurt

Nitrates: Found in bacon, bologna, canned ham, corned beef, hot dogs, pastrami, pepperoni, sausage, smoked nuts

MSG: Found in Chinese food, dry roasted nuts, frozen food, mayonnaise, potato chips, salad dressings

Track your triggers

Know your triggers: Knowing what triggers your headaches and avoiding those things as much as possible, may help to reduce the frequency and severity of your headaches. Because triggers vary from person to person, try to keep track of what factors provoke your particular headaches.

Keep a diary: Neuromuscular experts at Rush recommend 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.

This information will be useful to your doctor to help him or her determine what causes your headaches.