The number of people who suffer from headaches is, well, mind-numbing. The World Health Organisation estimates that 50% of adults has a headache at least once every year, and 30% of those individuals also experience migraines. Even worse:? The number of triggers that can actually cause head pain.
If you suffer from migraines - intense, throbbing headaches often accompanied by nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light - you know to avoid red wine, MSG and stress. But there are some unusual suspects that are less expected.
"Most people recognise that not getting enough sleep and hormonal changes can provoke headaches," says Dr. Elizabeth W. Loder, chief of the Neurology Department's Division of Headache and Pain at Brigham and Women's Faulkner Hospital in Boston. "But often they are not aware that high altitudes, diving or even thyroid problems can cause aches too."
Here are few more surprising culprits that might be making your head throb.
1. Sniffing specific scents
Another migraine on date night? It might be due to your special-occasion perfume. "Chemical molecules in perfumes can activate the trigeminal nerve endings to release pain signals in the brain," says Adelene E. Jann, M.D., a neurologist at NYU's Langone Medical Centre.
Figure out lifestyle triggers like fragrances by keeping a diary. "Track your migraines, the foods you ate before onset, the scents you smelled, activities and environmental changes that may have been related," Dr. Jann says.
2. Going on the Pill
Changes in estrogen impact inflammation, stress and blood sugar, all of which are linked to migraines. "Menopause and the Pill can rapidly lower estrogen," says ob-gyn Prudence Hall, M.D. "And estrogen levels rise during pregnancy."
Switch to nonhormonal birth control; if your doctor agrees, try bioidentical hormones for menopausal migraines. Your best bet while pregnant? Non-drug TLC - most painkillers are not recommended, though your M.D. may prescribe one.
3. Having an orgasm
Strenuous activity like sex and intense orgasms can cause neck and back muscle tension, which can set off a migraine. Orgasm also involves the activation of nerves in the central nervous system, which can have the same effect.
Build up your arousal slowly, and ask your doctor about a daily preventive medicine and other treatment options that may help protect against migraines caused by moments of bliss.
4. Skipping breakfast too often
Make sure you grab a bite before you go: In a recent study of 1,200 migraine sufferers, researchers found that fasting or missing a meal was the second-most common trigger of headaches in men and the third-most common trigger in women.
5. Suffering through bad weather
Rainy weather may get blamed a lot, but other types of weather also contribute to migraines for more than half of sufferers, shares Lee Peterlin, Director of Headache Research at Johns Hopkins Headache Centre in Baltimore. Temperature spikes, in fact, even land some people in the emergency room.
A study in the journal Neurology reports that for every 40-degree crawl upward, the risk of a headache intense enough to cause a trip to the hospital also rises more than 7%. Thunderstorms don't help either. Researchers aren't yet sure why, but a study published in Cephalagia found people were 28% more likely to come down with a migraine on days when lightning struck near their homes.
6. Springing forward - or falling back
Daily "cluster headaches" can be set off by adjusting the hour for daylight savings time or by traveling through time zones - and can last for up to seven weeks. Why? Blame the resulting changes in your circadian rhythm.
7. Indulging in some really stinky cheese
Yep, believe it or not, an estimated 25% of all migraine headaches are caused by tyramine, a substance in protein. So if looking for a food fix for migraines, consider eliminating these high-tyramine cheeses first: English Stilton, blue cheese, sharp cheddar, Danish blue, mozzarella, Swiss Gruyere, feta, Parmesan and Gorgonzola. Other offenders? Bacon, ham, hot dogs, avocado and bananas.
8. Popping an aspirin
Ironic, isn't it? "The single biggest, unrecognised cause of headache is probably medication or pain-killer overuse," says Peter J. Goadsby, professor of neurology at Kings College London and University of California, San Francisco, where he heads up the Headache Centre. How? Because people who take painkillers 10 days or more a month are primed for a "rebound headache," adds Goadsby. "The headache returns when the drugs wear off."
9. Inheriting something from Mum (or Dad)
According to the Migraine Research Foundation, if one parent suffers from migraines, there is a 40% chance a child will suffer them as well. Both parents? The likelihood rockets to 90%.
10. Switching up your routine
If you're not consistently sleeping, exercising and eating at the same time, you could be contributing to the pain. "Regularity is very helpful at keeping headaches at bay," explains Goadsby, who adds that scientists haven't yet determined the exact reason why. For now, just trust us - and stick to a schedule.
11. Not hugging your family enough
Sure, we admit this one is a stretch. But a recent study of chronic headache sufferers showed a marked improvement after they were given a dose of oxytocin, the "cuddle hormone." If more physical contact can ease your head and heart woes, then it's worth a try.
12. Zoning out in front of the TV after a long day
"Relaxation after stress is a classic headache trigger for people who are susceptible to migraines," Loder reveals. Known as a "let down" headache, the phenomenon was the subject of a 2014 study. In it, researchers found that during the first six hours of reduced stress, migraine sufferers' risk of headache was a whopping five times higher.
Beat the stress before it happens by practicing a little meditation. This four-minute video will help calm you down in no time:
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