Headaches And Migraines: 14 Factors That Might Be Causing Them

From taking too many painkillers to being on a period...

More than 10 million people in the UK experience headaches regularly, but what could be causing these niggling pains?

A 2017 study found that patterns of parallel lines (or stripes) could be one culprit. Researchers in the Netherlands said striped patterns caused negative effects, even in the brains of healthy people, which resulted in discomfort.

There are a few different types of head pain including migraine, tension, medication-induced and cluster headaches. Stripes aside, here are some of the key factors that could be causing them, according to the NHS and Migraine Trust.

Medication Or Painkiller-Overuse
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Yes, it might seem ironic but taking too many painkillers can actually cause headaches.

NHS advice is that this type of headache will usually get better within a few weeks once you stop taking the painkillers that are causing it. However the pain may get worse for a few days before it starts to improve.
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When you don't drink enough and become dehydrated, the brain loses water and shrinks which leads to it pulling away from the skull. This is what's responsible for the pain.
Poor Posture
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Slouching or hunching over your desk could be causing tension headaches, which feel like a constant ache affecting both sides of the head - "as though a tight band is stretched around it".

These headaches usually last for anywhere between 30 minutes and several hours. However it is possible for them to last for days.
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Like bad posture, stress can also trigger tension headaches. This is often because when people become stressed, they tighten their neck and shoulders, which has a knock-on effect. Additionally, stressed people may clench their jaws or grind their teeth, which again can trigger headaches.

Research has found that for every 10% increase in a person's stress levels, there's also an increase in the likelihood of them experiencing tension headaches and migraines.
Skipping Meals
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Skipping meals can trigger hypoglycaemia, which refers to abnormally low blood sugar levels. According to The Migraine Trust, this can be responsible for triggering or exacerbating migraine and other headaches.
Drinking Too Much Alcohol
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It's no secret that drinking too much can leave your head pounding. According to the National Headache Foundation, there are a few reasons why this might happen. Firstly, ethanol is a direct vasodilator and in some people vasodilation - where blood vessels widen and blood pressure decreases - can cause headache. Ethanol is also a natural diuretic which can lead to dehydration.
Cold Or Flu
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Immune system expert Dr Jen Tan says headaches caused by the flu often occur alongside a fever. This is because raised body temperature causes the blood vessels to dilate, which increases the pressure inside your head. Additionally, headaches can be worsened by sinus pain.

"When you have the flu, the mucous membranes lining your sinuses and nasal cavities can become inflamed," explains Dr Tan. "This also leads to increased pressure around your face and eyes, worsening your headache."
Head Injury
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Head injury and concussion can both cause headaches. Minor head injuries will leave you with symptoms such as mild headache, nausea, mild dizziness and mild blurred vision. If you experience this it's important to sit down and rest. It might also help to hold a cold compress to your head.

If any of the symptoms worsen, head to A&E.
Temporomandibular Disorders
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Headaches can also be caused by temporomandibular disorders, which are problems that affect the "chewing" muscles and the joints between the lower jaw and the base of the skull.
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These headaches are uncommon and caused by inflamed sinuses, which lead to a build up of pressure that causes a dull, throbbing pain in the upper face.
Sleep Apnoea
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Sleep apnoea is a common sleep condition where the walls of the throat relax and narrow during sleep, resulting in interrupted breathing.

According to the British Snoring and Sleep Apnoea Association, people with this condition may experience headaches due to alterations in the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the blood. Evening and early morning headaches are very common in this group, as ventilation is normally poorer during sleep.
Excessive Caffeine Consumption
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Excessive consumption of caffeine may contribute to the onset of migraines and headaches. This is because having too much of the substance can trigger “caffeine rebound”, says The National Headache Foundation.

"A caffeine rebound headache occurs from withdrawal of caffeine after a sufferer continually consumes too much of the substance. Though the physical side effects can be severe, only 2% of the population suffers from caffeine rebound," the site explains.
Hormonal Changes In Women
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According to the NHS, most headaches in women are caused by hormones. In fact, at least five million women experience hormone headaches each month.

Women are likely to experience headaches around their periods (also known as menstrual migraines). Hormonal headaches can also be caused by taking the combined oral contraceptive pill, hitting the menopause and falling pregnant.
Computer Screens
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Staring at your computer screen all day can result in eye strain, which can lead to headaches and difficulty focusing. To prevent this, Specsavers advise regularly resting your eyes by looking away from the screen at something in the distance, using adequate lighting in the office and investing in an anti-glare screen.

When To Seek Urgent Help

While most headaches can be easily treated with painkillers and lifestyle changes, there are some warning signs which suggest you should seek urgent medical attention.

The NHS advises that if you hurt your head badly, for example from a fall or accident, you should go to A&E. This also applies if your headache feels “like the worst pain you’ve ever had” and it came on suddenly.

Additionally, if you experience a severe headache and any of the following - sudden problems speaking or remembering things, blurred vision, feeling drowsy or confused, have a high fever, stiff neck, rash or redness in one of your eyes - you should seek help.

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