What Your Headaches Are Telling You About Your Health
A tiny pang in your brain could come from something far more pressing.
That pounding in your head—the pressure that seems to build and build, compounding into near intolerable (and highly distracting) waves of pain. Yes, you’ve got yet another headache, and, with each passing moment, it’s getting worse.
If you experience regular headache pain, whether minor in nature or full-on migraines, you’re far from alone. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in twenty adults experiences a headache almost every day, and one in seven is saddled with migraine pain.
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Fortunately, there’s some good news. “Headaches are an easy fix,” says Dr. Chris Niedzinski of Inner Link Chiropractic. “At the end of the day there is almost always a cause that needs to be addressed. Simply masking the symptom will never solve the issue.” With that in mind, we’ve rounded up all the surprising things your headache pain could be telling you about your health.
You’re stressed out.
With seemingly non-stop demands from work, family, and friends, it’s no wonder you’re stressed out. Unfortunately, that stress could be the real reason you’re experiencing headache pain with such frequency. According to research conducted at the William Beaumont Army Medical Center, 67 percent of the headaches among military members studied were attributable to stress.
Your spine is misaligned.
Whether the result of poor posture or injury, spinal misalignment can be a trigger for serious headache pain. “There are nerves exiting the upper spine that control the suboccipital muscles, the muscles that sit at the base of the skull at the back of the head. Spinal misalignments can irritate those nerves as they leave the spine. Think ‘pinched nerve,’” explains chiropractor Dr. Jason Hare.
“When the nerve is compressed, you will see symptoms in what the nerves control. In this case, it leads to very tight muscles at the back of the head. If severe enough pressure exists the pain will spread in a band like distribution, forward to the temples.”
You have allergies.
Food allergies don’t always trigger the life-threatening threatening symptoms. In fact, in many cases, headaches are a sign you should stop snacking on a certain food immediately.
“There are certain foods that can cause sudden headaches,” says Dr. John Cheng, MD, of South Coast Medical Group. “The range can be anything from certain cheeses to nuts and peanut butter, to certain beans,” says Dr. Cheng. “I have also seen headaches as a result of monosodium glutamate (MSG), a seasoner for foods and often found in Chinese restaurants.”
You have sleep apnea.
If you “awaken with headaches,” says Dr. Alyson Pidich, Medical Director of The Ash Center, that’s a good sign you’re suffering from sleep apnea or snoring and don’t even know it. In fact, according to a study conducted at London’s National Hospital for Nervous Diseases, sleep deprivation caused headaches ranging from one hour to 24 hours in study subjects.
You need new glasses.
Haven’t updated your prescription in a while? That might be the reason behind those persistent headaches. “Patients who may need new eyeglass prescriptions find themselves having headaches due to the strain of the muscles involving and surrounding the eye to improve their focus,” says Dr. Cheng.
While most regulatory bodies and doctors recommend the consumption of at least 64 ounces of water in a 24-hour period, research suggests that most U.S. adults are getting approximately half of that. The result? An uptick in headaches among the chronically dehydrated.
“Dehydration is often a subtle cause of headaches,” says Dr. Cheng. “I will see this in the elderly who may have less sensation to thirst and forget to drink their daily requirements of water. I will also see this in individuals who get so busy with work or taking care of kids that they forget to drink enough fluids.” His recommendation? “I personally set an alarm on my phone twice a day to remind myself to drink water.”
You have a sinus infection.
That headache that takes root in your forehead and won’t let go? It could be the sign of a sinus infection. As your nasal passages become inflamed and swell, pressure can build in your sinus cavity, making it difficult to breathe and contributing to serious headache pain.
You grind your teeth.
If you’re dealing with daily headaches and can’t figure out why, it might be time to talk to your orthodontist. According to Dr. Pidich, nighttime tooth grinding is often a surprising headache trigger, and many people don’t know they’re doing it until a medical professional points it out.
You’re about to get your period.
Unfortunately, cramps and bloating aren’t the only symptoms that it’s about to be that time of the month. “Hormone changes,” says Dr. Pidich, “[like] monthly periods in women” are a major contributor to headache pain.
You have a vitamin or mineral deficiency.
While what you eat can be a major trigger for headaches, what you’re not getting enough of—like particular vitamins and minerals—can also be a source of serious pain.
“[I saw] a young woman with terrible headaches that no one could solve. She had been everywhere. Was even prescribed a pill to take weekly that was $100 a pop. She was miserable. Of course, when I saw her initially, I said, ‘That’s easy!’ We did chiropractic—didn’t work. We tested toxicity—didn’t work. Looked at other causes—didn’t work,” says chiropractor Dr. Chris Niedzinski, founder or Maximized Living. “[It] wasn’t until I performed a metabolic test on her and noticed a mineral deficiency (she was vegetarian). Some simple, cheap, mineral supplementation and it all went away and never returned,” he says.
You’re undergoing caffeine withdrawal.
While you may be ditching coffee in a bid to improve your overall wellbeing, or get better sleep, doing so might also be the reason you’re experiencing frequent headache pain. “When someone suddenly decreases the amount of caffeine they are taking in, he or she can experience the effects of the rebound of not having caffeine,” says Dr. Cheng. A gentler solution? “A slow taper is recommended if you decide to quit or cut back on your caffeine intake.”
You’re sensitive to nitrates.
Whether they’re lurking in your favorite beer or in that bratwurst, nitrates—chemical and salt compounds use to inhibit bacterial growth and maintain the color of certain foods—can trigger intense headache pain. “Food preservatives, including nitrites and nitrates, can trigger headaches. These additives are found in hot dogs, ham, sausage, bacon, lunch meats, deli-style meats, and pepperoni,” says Dr. Robert Zembroski, author of REBUILD.
Your body’s breaking down alcohol.
That pounding headache that comes on while you’re still drinking could be the result of your body’s attempt to flush that booze out of your system.
“After ingesting alcohol, it is broken down into a toxic byproduct called acetaldehyde. The liver tries to detoxify this compound with a substance called glutathione. Unfortunately, with larger amounts of alcohol, the livers stores of glutathione are used up. This leaves higher levels of acetaldehyde to build up in the blood which can cause headaches,” says Dr. Zembroski.
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