Pounding, throbbing, stabbing, aching — welcome to the world of headaches, an ailment that affects more than 45 million Americans each year.
Humans have been suffering from the malady for millennia. Recorded depictions date back to at least 4000 B.C. in Mesopotamia, where it was thought that Tiu, the evil spirit of headaches, was to blame. The shenanigans of evil spirits were assumed to be the cause of headaches throughout many cultures, and gave rise to trephination — a procedure in which a small circular portion of the skull was removed, creating egress for the pain-triggering spirits.
Given how agonizing a headache can be, rowdy evil spirits wreaking havoc doesn’t seem all that much of a stretch. Fortunately we know better now, and in most cultures no longer rely on holes drilled in the head for relief. But if not evil sprits, what does cause the pain?
There are many catalysts that can create the ache, and medical literature has complied a lengthy compendium of causes. Culled from several sources, below is a summary of the most common triggers for migraine, cluster, rebound and tension headaches. Some of them you may be familiar with, but there is no shortage of surprising ones.
- Overuse of common prescription or over-the-counter pain medication: Half of chronic migraines, and as many as 25 percent of all headaches, are actually “rebound” episodes triggered by the overuse of common pain medications.
- Red wine
- Aged cheese
- Smoked fish
- Meats containing nitrates (bacon, hot dogs, salami, cured meats)
- Processed foods
- Fermented foods
- Pickled foods
- Marinated foods
- Dairy products
- Skipping meals
- Bright lights
- Sun glare
- Loud sounds
- Pleasant scents, such as perfume
- Unpleasant odors, such as paint thinner and secondhand smoke
- Hormonal changes in women before or during their periods, during pregnancy, or menopause
- Oral contraceptives and hormone replacement therapy
- Jet lag
- Changes in wake-sleep pattern
- Not enough sleep
- Too much sleep
- Sleeping in a cold room
- Sleeping with the neck in an abnormal position
- Holding your head and neck in an abnormal position while working (typing, microscope viewing, etc)
- Intense physical exertion
- Sexual activity
- Change of weather or barometric pressure
- High altitudes (hiking, air travel)
- Heat (hot weather, hot baths)
- Colds, the flu or a sinus infection
- Jaw clenching or teeth grinding
- Eye strain
- Head injury
Serious causes of headaches are rare, but sometimes headaches warn of a more serious disorder. The National Institutes of Health recommends letting your health care provider know if you have sudden, severe headaches. Get medical help right away if you have a headache after a blow to your head, or if you have a headache along with a stiff neck, fever, confusion, loss of consciousness or pain in the eye or ear.