Although an estimated 45 million Americans endure the pounding, throbbing, (sometimes nauseating) pain of headaches, experts still don’t know exactly what causes them. And triggers aren’t the same for everyone.
One theory is that migraine sufferers may have more sensitive brain cells than other folks. And when those super-sensitive cells are triggered, your body pumps out prostaglandins and serotonin. This causes the blood vessels in your brain to constrict and then dilate, leading to that classic throbbing pain.
But no matter how your headaches are caused if you find yourself saying, “Oh my aching head,” far too often—and you’ve already ruled out some of the most talked about triggers, such as red wine, aged cheeses and bright lights—then it might be time to dig a bit deeper.
Following are five surprising headache triggers that turn out to be quite common.
It turns out a lightning storm could increase your chances of having a headache. When scientists from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine crunched data collected from the headache logs of 90 migraine sufferers in two different states the link emerged.
In fact, folks who suffer with migraines are 28 percent more likely to experience a headache on days when lightning strikes within 25 miles of their home, according to a study published in the journal Cephalalgia.1
And while you obviously can’t control the weather, since migraines are often linked to multiple triggers when you know a storm is on the way you can take extra steps to avoid any of your other known triggers. Or, if your schedule permits it, it’s the perfect excuse for day trip. Grab a friend and take drive to somewhere outside of the storm area.
2. Your handbag:
Experts say hauling around oversized and overstuffed purses and tote bags could be behind some headaches. Studies show that heavy bags can lead to neck and shoulder strain and pain, which it turn could trigger headaches.
According to research published in the journal Applied Ergonomics, bags that clocked in at a bit over 6 pounds triggered neck pain in 35.3 percent of study volunteers and shoulder pain in 26.1 percent.2 In another study, carrying bags that weighed in at an average of 6.3 pounds triggered shoulder pain in 70 percent of study subjects.3
Drop your bag onto your bathroom scale to get an idea of how much extra weight you’re dragging around every day. If it’s more than a couple of pounds lighten your load and you may find your headaches lighten up too.
3. Skipping a meal:
Experts say hunger, or simply eating too little, can trigger a migraine. In fact, although it’s an often overlooked cause of headache pain researchers say it may even turn out to be the number one cause of migraines.4,5 In other words, if you get migraines this is one potential trigger you should not ignore.
Experts say hunger related headaches are likely due to dropping blood sugar levels. So to avoid a blood-sugar triggered migraines you should avoid skipping meals, stick to regular meal times and always carry a healthy snack, such as nuts, with for emergencies.
Processed meats such as hotdogs and lunchmeats can reportedly trigger migraines in a number of folks with those sensitive brain cells mentioned earlier.6 And, once again, it likely has something to do with your blood vessels.
Processed meats are loaded with preservatives including nitrates and nitrites. Your body converts nitrites into blood vessel expanding nitric oxide. And experts say it’s this dilation that’s likely the cause of the headaches.
And now research at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine have uncovered another clue. It turns out the mouths of migraine sufferers contain significantly more of a microbe that triggers the process that eventually turns nitrates into nitric oxide.7
To reduce your exposure to headache-triggering nitrites skip the lunchmeats, hotdogs and other processed meats and dig into some fresh, grass fed cuts of meat instead.
5. Your glass of ice water:
Everyone is familiar with the dreaded “ice cream” headache. It’s that temporary stabbing pain that you get when you’ve eaten something frozen (or very cold) too quickly. Lucky for us ice cream headaches usually go away in less than a minute. But for some migraine sufferers ice cold drinks and foods can trigger an attack.
When researchers had a group of volunteers hold an ice cube between their tongue and the roof of their mouth for a minute and a half, it triggered a migraine in 74 percent of the volunteers who were migraine sufferers.8 And folks who have migraines are twice as likely to experience a headache after drinking ice water, according to research published in the journal Cephalalgia.9
Cutting back on frozen desserts such as ice cream and avoiding ice-cold drinks could help you reduce your own headaches.
If you suffer from frequent headaches stop simply wincing and bearing it. Take a closer look at these five surprising migraine triggers and see if you can’t slash or eliminate your headache pain once and for all.
1. “Lightning and its association with the frequency of headache in migraineurs: an observational cohort study,” Cephalalgia. 2013 Apr;33(6):375-83
2. “Neck, shoulder and low back pain in secondary schoolchildren in relation to schoolbag carriage: should the recommended weight limits be gender-specific?,” Appl Ergon. 2014 May;45(3):437-42
3. “School Bag Weight and the Occurrence of Shoulder, Hand/Wrist and Low Back Symptoms among Iranian Elementary Schoolchildren,” Health Promot Perspect. 2011; 1(1): 76–8
4. “European principles of management of common headache disorders in primary care,” J Headache Pain. 2007 Oct;8 Suppl 1:S3-47
5. “The relationship between serum levels of vitamin D and migraine,” J Res Med Sci. 2013 Mar; 18(Suppl 1): S66–S70
6. “Headaches: a Review of the Role of Dietary Factors,” Curr Neurol Neurosci Rep. 2016 Nov;16(11):101
7. “Migraines Are Correlated with Higher Levels of Nitrate-, Nitrite-, and Nitric Oxide-Reducing Oral Microbes in the American Gut Project Cohort,” mSystems, October 18 2016
8. “Prevalence and clinical characteristics of an experimental model of ‘ice-cream headache’ in migraine and episodic tension-type headache patients,” Cephalalgia. 2004 Apr;24(4):293-7
9. “Headache caused by drinking cold water is common and related to active migraine,” Cephalalgia. 2001 Apr;21(3):230-5
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