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Have a Headache? 11 Common Triggers and What You Can Do to Find Relief

Posted June 12, 2023 by Jeannie Gombaski, APRN, CNP

Woman holding her hands on her head

Headaches, the most common health complaint, can be just that — a real pain. While headaches typically aren’t dangerous, they can cause severe discomfort and disrupt daily life.

Pain, pressure or aching from headaches can occur in the forehead, temples and the back of the neck. The pain can range from mild to severe and last anywhere from 30 minutes to a week. In most cases, a headache is not a symptom of an underlying condition. Instead, primary headaches may be due to overactivity of blood vessels, muscles, nerves or brain chemicals.

While there are more than 100 different kinds of headaches, the most common type are tension headaches. Tension headaches strike when the muscles in the head and neck tighten. Typically, people feel the pain spread across both sides of their head, often starting in the back and creeping forward. It’s often described as feeling like a tight band around the head.

There are many factors that trigger a tension headache. Summa Health describes common causes of tension headaches and what you can do to head off the pain. After all, when you know what’s causing your pain, it’s much easier to prevent it.

  • Stress. When you’re stressed, head and neck muscles can tense and contract, triggering a headache. Reduce stress by regularly practicing relaxation techniques, such as yoga, meditation, journaling and warm baths.
  • Fatigue or overexertion. Lack of sleep or overexercise can increase stress hormones. To avoid headaches, get at least seven hours of sleep each night and maintain regular sleep patterns, such as going to sleep and waking up at the same time each day.
  • Hunger. When you’re hungry, blood sugar levels drop below normal and can trigger pain. To avoid headaches, eat meals at regular intervals and never skip a meal. Eating a healthy breakfast every morning is important, too.
  • Dehydration. When you’re dehydrated, blood vessels in the brain temporarily shrink, causing a headache. Drink several glasses of water daily to stay hydrated. It also helps to eat foods that contain lots of water, such as fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Too much caffeine or caffeine withdrawal. Chronic consumption of caffeine increases the risk of headaches, as does quitting caffeine altogether. More than four regular cups of coffee daily can cause headaches and irritability, so it’s a good idea to limit caffeine consumption.
  • Regular, long-time use of pain medication, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen: Headaches may improve with pain-relief medication, but will return once it wears off due to withdrawal. If you stop taking pain medication on a regular basis, the rebound headache should go away.
  • Certain foods. Processed foods containing MSG or nitrates can cause headaches because when consumed, they can cause blood vessels to swell. It’s best to avoid these ingredients altogether.
  • Alcohol, particularly red wine. Drinking alcohol is dehydrating, negatively impacts sleep and increases stress hormones, all of which can trigger a headache. Drink in moderation and consume plenty of water to stay hydrated.
  • Colds, flu or sinus congestion. When you’re sick, swelling in the sinuses can cause pain behind the cheeks, nose and eyes. Washing your hands regularly, taking an antihistamine and getting a yearly flu shot can decrease the risk of infection.
  • Eye strain. Staring at a computer screen for long periods of time can tire your eyes. To help relieve eye strain and the headaches it causes, follow the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, focus on something about 20 feet away for 20 seconds.
  • Dental problems, such as jaw clenching or teeth grinding. Keep regular dental visits to avoid toothaches and talk to your dentist about a mouth guard for headache prevention.

Headache prevention

It seems simple enough: To prevent headaches, avoid the triggers that cause them. However, avoiding triggers takes careful planning and requires you to pay close attention to your environment and lifestyle.

One way to achieve this goal is by keeping a headache journal. It can help you track patterns and identify triggers. Jot down the day and time of onset, your symptoms and any activity before the headache began.

Journaling this information can help you pinpoint possible causes so you can develop a plan to avoid triggers and reduce frequency of headaches, if not prevent them, and bring you long-awaited relief.

Most people can feel much better by making lifestyle changes, practicing relaxation techniques and taking over-the-counter pain relievers, as needed. However, if your headaches are increasing in frequency or severity, and are interfering with your usual daily activities, it’s time to talk to your primary care doctor about a treatment plan.

To learn more or schedule an appointment with a Summa Health primary care provider, visit


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