Avoiding Headache and Migraine Triggers

By Osman Farooq, MD and Thomas J. Langan, MD

Woman Holding Hand to Head

Headaches are unfortunately a very common problem. Roughly 30 million Americans suffer from chronic headaches or migraines.

Children and adolescents can suffer from the same types of headaches and migraines adults do. It is common for headaches to start in early years. Fifty percent of adults with headaches say that their headaches started before age 20, and 20 percent of patients say theirs started as early as 10.

Although much about the cause of migraines isn’t understood, genetics and environmental factors appear to play a role. “Triggers” are specific factors that may increase your risk of having a headache. Below is a list of common potential headache/migraine triggers:

Foods and Dietary Habits: Chocolate, cheese, monosodium glutamate (found in Chinese food, certain potato chips, ramen noodles, cup-a-soup, taco seasoning), artificial sweeteners, processed meats (hot dogs, deli meats, bacon, pepperoni), gluten, caffeine, and alcohol. Skipping breakfast and/or lunch are also common triggers.

Medications: Overuse of over-the-counter pain medications (ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and Excedrin more than 2 times per week) can cause rebound headaches.

Sleep: Sleeping too much or not enough.

Stress/Emotion: Anxiety, worry, depression, excitement, grief, the pressure of taking an exam or making a presentation.

Vision: Eyestrain (trouble seeing the board at school), bright or flashing lights, staring at computer screens for extended periods.

Hormonal: Menstrual cycles, birth control pills, hormone replacement therapies, menopause.

Physical: Excessive exercising, exercising in the heat, dehydration, head injuries.

Environmental: Weather and temperature changes, extremes or heat or cold, pollution or certain odors.

Keeping a headache diary can help identify potential triggers. Once triggers have been identified, it is easier to avoid them and potentially reduce the chance of living with headaches and migraines.

About the authors:
Dr. Farooq is an assistant professor and Dr. Langan is an associate professor at University of Buffalo’s Department of Neurology. They both see patients at Women & Children’s Hospital of Buffalo (716-878-7840) and at the UBMD Williamsville clinic (716-932-6080).