Fitness + Well-being

The real cause of your headaches, according to a doctor

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Got a headache? Join the (pain) club. Headaches are one of the most common reasons people see a doctor, with three-quarters of women saying they had a headache in the last year. Women of reproductive age are the most likely to be affected, with one in four ladies under 45 years old reporting suffering from "severe" headaches or migraines, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But while we've all likely had a headache recently, there are some unlucky souls who suffer from recurring or chronic headaches, also known as headache disorder, according to the World Health Organization. 

But just because headaches are super common doesn't mean you just have to live with them, especially not if you're having them on a daily basis, says Medhat Mikhael, M.D., a pain management specialist and medical director at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. 

"A lot of women think headaches are something they must simply endure or treat by taking over-the-counter painkillers like ibuprofen or Tylenol, but not only is that not the best treatment it can even be dangerous as using those medications daily can cause serious damage to your kidneys and liver," he explains. "If your headaches are affecting your daily life, it's time to see a doctor." 

The first thing the doctor should do, he says, is ask you a bunch of questions—about everything from your sex life to your diet to your job. Why the major interrogation? Because almost anything in your life can potentially trigger chronic headaches, and identifying your triggers is the single best thing you can do to treat them. Start by keeping a detailed "headache journal" and record your diet, exercise, sleep, and menstrual patterns to see if you can find a link.

Not sure where to start? Each woman is different, but there are some headache triggers Mikhael says he sees most often. Check out this list and see if any of these ring true for you:

Stress
This is the number-one reason women have headaches, he says. When you get stressed out, it triggers a cascade of hormones that put your body into fight-or-flight mode, tightening all your muscles and triggering headaches. But hearing your headaches are likely due to stress can be super frustrating. We live in a stew of stress every day and if we knew how to ditch daily stress, we'd already be the svelte, calm goddesses of our dreams, right? Still, getting your stress under control is one of the best things you can do for your head and your health. (Hint: Start with these 10 guaranteed ways to relieve stress.)

Hormones
Ah yes, hormones. Our monthly fluctuations of progesterone and estrogen affect everything, so it's no surprise that one of the most common symptoms of PMS is a headache. Menstrual headaches are common, but if yours are lasting longer than a day or two, your hormones might be seriously out-of-whack, meaning it's time to get them checked, Mikhael says.

RELATED: THIS WOMAN'S PHOTO SHOWS WHAT IT'S REALLY LIKE TO LIVE WITH EXTREME PMS

High Blood Pressure
Many people are surprised to discover that their daily headaches are actually a symptom of hypertension, Mikhael says. The extra pressure of your blood increases the pressure inside your head, causing a chronic headache. Fortunately, treating the high blood pressure with medication or lifestyle changes will automatically cure this type of headache. (Kick-start your new, healthy routine with Women's Health's 12-Week Total-Body Transformation!)

Dental Problems
Pain in your teeth, from decay or disease, or pain in your jaw, from tightness or TMJ, can show up as a headache in the top of your head, he explains. It's called "referred pain" and is a very common symptom of dental issues. You should already be seeing your dentist on the regular but if you have a headache that won't quit, it's worth popping in for another check-up.

RELATED: 7 DENTISTS SHARE THE MOST HORRIFYING THINGS THEY'VE EVER SEEN AT WORK

Insomnia
Lack of sleep ruins everything. It can expand your waistline, make you crave junk food, hurt your memory, and make you cranky (not to mention, you know, exhausted). But it turns out that chronic insomnia can also cause chronic headaches. "Unrested muscles can cause tension headaches and insomnia releases stress hormones, both of which trigger headaches," Mikhael says.

Caffeine
Here's the Diet Coke paradox: A little caffeine can cure a headache—that's why it's a main ingredient in Excedrin—but too much caffeine can trigger a headache. And the line is very individual. Mikhael recommends taking caffeine out completely and seeing if your headaches go away. If not, try using it only in small doses.

Alcohol
The fact that drinking can lead to headaches will surprise no one who's ever been hungover. But you don't have to get drunk to suffer head pain, he says. In fact, what you're drinking may be as much the culprit as how much. The worst offender? Cheap wines. The sulfites, filtration process, and other factors can trigger a headache, so Mikhael says if you're going to have a glass of wine, splurge on the high-quality stuff. 

Certain Foods
Dietary triggers for headaches are very individual. Some people might be triggered by eating sugar, others by noshing on hot dogs, but the most common denominator is processed foods, Mikhael explains. Stick to whole grains, fruits, veggies, and unprocessed meats and you might find your headaches disappear. One surprising food that pops up a lot among his headache patients? Cheese.

RELATED11 'HEALTHY' FOODS NUTRITIONISTS NEVER EAT

Allergies or Sensitivities
People who are sensitive or allergic to particular smells, lights, flavors, or sensations may find their headaches are triggered by their particular sensitivity. Only you can know what your particular triggers are and the best way to figure them out is to keep a detailed headache journal, he advises.

Autoimmune Diseases
Chronic headaches can, in some cases, be an early sign of an autoimmune disorder like multiple sclerosis, lupus, arthritis, and nerve damage, Mikhael says. Your doctor should be able to rule out any of these diseases.

Your Job
Work-related tension headaches are very common, he says. First, there's the stress that often comes with work (see point #1 above) but headaches can also be triggered by anything that keeps your body in the same position for long periods of time like, oh, sitting at a desk in front of a computer screen all day. So stand up when you can and take frequent breaks to stretch and walk.

Your Phone
Texting neck, it's a thing. And staring down at your phone all day can cause headaches not just from the stress on your neck muscles but also from the eye strain, the screen brightness, and the position you sit or stand in when you use it. (You're reading this on your phone right now, aren't you? Take a 10-minute stretch break!)

First published on WomensHealthMag.com