5 Underlying Causes of Headaches

As one of the most common medical complaints, headaches are something that everyone experiences at some point.  A headache may be a sign of stress or emotional distress or it can be the result of conditions like migraines, high blood pressure, anxiety or depression.  

What are headaches? 

A headache is a painful sensation in any part of the head, from sharp to dull pain which may occur with other symptoms.  

Different types of headaches

Migraines

This type of headache may cause pulsating, throbbing pain usually on one side of the head and may be accompanied by  blurred vision, light-headedness, nausea or sensory disturbances known as auras. Migraines have significant impact on life, causing days lost or work missed as they can last from a few hours to 2 days.  

Cluster 

Typically lasting 15 minutes to 3 hours, they occur suddenly once daily or up to eight times per day for a period of weeks to months.  Between clusters, there may be no symptoms and this headache-free period can last months to years. Cluster headaches can be associated with pain on one side, severe pain, sharp or burning pain and are typically located in or around one eye.  Symptoms associated with cluster headaches are dropping eyelid, stuffy, runny nasal passage on the affected side and area affected may become red and swollen.  

Tension 

Tension headaches begin gradual and slow, typically in the middle of the day.  Episodic or chronic, they can feel like a tight band across head, constant dull ache on both sides or spreading pain to and from neck.  Episodes can last a few hours or several days. Chronic tension headaches occur 15 or more days per month for at least 3 months.  

Rebound 

This type of headache typically occurs from the result of the overuse of headache treatment medication.  Rebound headaches can cause a range of symptoms and the pain can be different every day. They may improve with medication but worsen when its effects wear off.  Along with the headache, neck pain, restlessness, nasal congestion and reduced sleep can be associated.  

Conventional Treatment 

There are various ways to treat headaches available.  The most common conventional ways to treat headaches are using pain relief medications, either over the counter or prescription.  Each type of headache may need a different treatment. Let’s explore some of the popular treatments for headaches.  

Topamax (topiramate)

Topamax is in a class of drugs called anti-convulsant, typically used to treat epilepsy but also are used to treat migraines.  Topamax is thought to calm overactive nerve cells in the brain. This prescription medication is taken daily and usually takes a few months to reduce the number of migraines.  There are severe side effects associated with Topamax which include tingling in arms and legs, decreased appetite, weight loss, taste change, nausea or stomach pain and dizziness.  

Botox 

Botox was approved for use with chronic migraines a few years ago and is used for migraine-sufferers who have 15 headaches or more a month.  Botox is a form of botulinum toxin, a neurotoxin produced by the bacteria that causes botulism. It is purified and used in tiny doses in specific areas, temporarily reducing muscle concentrations for approximately 3 months.  Botox is injected around pain fibers involved with headaches. It enters nerve endings around where it is injected and blocks chemicals involved in pain transmission, preventing pain activation of pain network in the brain. Botox use may cause muscle weakness near injection site, muscle stiffness, neck pain, blurred vision or puffy and dropping eyes.  

Aspirin 

An anti-inflammatory, aspirin blocks the activity of the enzyme which helps to make prostaglandin to help reduce the levels of prostaglandin in the body.  Prostaglandin helps send pain signals to the brain. Aspirin circulates through the body, acting at sites where prostaglandin is being produced. When production of prostaglandin is impaired, the pain signals stop causing the headache to stop.  Aspirin has a few side effects like heartburn, indigestion, stomach pain or cramping.  

5 Underlying Causes

The goal to eliminate chronic headaches is to address the root cause to why some headaches are occurring.  Often there are underlying physical conditions like food allergies, hormone imbalances, neurotransmitter imbalances, nutrient deficiencies or musculoskeletal issues that can be the cause. Finding the cause can be the key to ending the suffering on a permanent basis. 

Food Allergy Induced Headaches 

There is a relationship between food and headaches.  Foods high in histamine like aged cheese, fermented foods, vinegar-containing foods, citrus foods chocolate, alcohol or artificial sweeteners  can trigger migraines and other headaches. Another issue with food may be that there is an allergic reaction or immune response happening in the body that isn’t easily detected because it doesn’t trigger overt allergic reactions.  These reactions may be occurring inside the body and presenting with headaches, stomach issues, rashes, concentration issues and other symptoms that may not be associated with food. These allergies are associated with IgG antibodies and can be detected in a diagnostic test which identifies these antibodies.  Healthcare professionals that run IgG antibody testing will often recommend an elimination diet of the problematic foods. An elimination diet involves removing all the foods that the test determines are triggering a response from your diet for 3-6 weeks and then adding them back in, one at a time to gage reactions to the foods.  

Hormone Induced Headaches

Fluctuating hormone levels can be a major contributor of chronic headaches.  Some common hormonal issues associated with headaches are: 

  • Menstrual cycle
  • Pregnancy
  • Perimenopause/Menopause
  • Hormone Replacement Therapy
  • Oral contraceptives 

Levels of estrogen and progesterone fall to low levels prior to menstruation, causing a fluctuation which may trigger a menstrual headache.  Alternatively, during pregnancy, estrogen levels rise and many people who experience menstrual headaches find relief during this time. For others, the rise in hormones can trigger headaches.  This is like perimenopause and menopause, where the hormone levels are declining but hormone replacements may be used to counteract this effect. The balance of hormones is a delicate one and any shift in the balance could be the cause of headaches.  If you are noticing an association related to hormones and headaches, which may include symptoms like throbbing pain that starts on one side of the head, sensitivity to light or nausea and vomiting, estrogen and progesterone levels can be tested to determine if a hormonal imbalance is the culprit.  

Neurotransmitter Induced Headaches

One aspect of migraine pain theory is that migraine pain occurs due to the waves of activity by groups of excitable brain cells.  These waves trigger chemicals, such as serotonin, to narrow blood vessels. Serotonin is necessary for communication between nerve cells, causing narrowing of blood vessels throughout the body.  When these levels change, a migraine can result.   

Dopamine is the body’s “feel-good” neurotransmitter, controlling movements, sensory perception and emotional responses.  When dopamine levels drop, sensitivity to stimuli like smell, sunlight, light touch and sound occurs. This often occurs with people with migraines and research shows that dopamine levels drop and fluctuate during these migraine attacks.  

Optimal neurotransmitter balance is required to maintain proper health. Imbalance can cause the brain or body to be over or under stimulated.  Testing neurotransmitter levels can provide more accurate data to identify systemic patterns and identify how to correct the imbalance. 

Micronutrient Induced Headaches

Deficiencies in vitamins and minerals, otherwise known as micronutrients, could be a key to unlocking the cause of migraines and other headaches.  Some common micronutrient deficiencies which contribute to headaches may be riboflavin (B2), magnesium and CoQ10. While taking supplements can help to improve these levels, adding foods rich in these nutrients will aide in further boosting levels.  Riboflavin helps to convert food to energy and helps to metabolize fats and proteins.  Riboflavin is found in lean meats, leafy greens, nuts and legumes. It is unknown why riboflavin may be helpful in reducing headaches but could be that some people are more prone to deficiencies in riboflavin.  Magnesium works by activating enzymes in the body, is crucial to nerve transmission and many other functions throughout the body.  Foods rich in magnesium are typically high fiber foods like nuts, grains, leafy vegetables. Often those who suffer from migraines have lower levels of magnesium which may explain why it is particularly helpful.  CoQ10 is used to produce energy for growth and maintenance and is involved in the creation of adenosine triphosphate or ATP, which is the cell’s major energy source and works as an antioxidant.  While you can get CoQ10 from a balanced diet with fish, organ meats and whole grains, supplementation may be useful for those suffering from chronic headaches.  

Musculoskeletal Induced Headaches

Stress causes the muscles and ligaments to get tight or tense.  Neck and jaw muscles often seem to be uncomfortably tight, full of trigger points or knots that may be radiating pain over the head and sometimes down the neck, shoulders, or even arms. Often headaches arise from problems in the neck, rooted in the cervical spine or base of the skull.  

When headaches are daily or almost daily, your healthcare provider may recommend imagining, ruling out various medical conditions that can be causing the headache.  MRIs or magnetic resonance angiography is often done to rule out any blood vessel problems. MRIs provide information about the structure of the brain and brain chemicals without the use of x-rays.  CT scans use x-rays and computers to take images. While neither an MRI or CT scan can “diagnose” headaches, they are used to rule out other causes of pain.  

Chiropractic care is a better alternative to treating headache pain. Spinal manipulation or chiropractic adjustments improve spinal function and alleviate stress on the spine, improving headache pain.  A multi-modal approach with chiropractic care, nutritional and adding supplements to fill nutrient deficiencies has shown an increased benefit to neck and headache pain.  

Recommended Supplements by INEVO Body

NeuroXCore – Bioavailable source of magnesium to help support relaxation, stress and headaches

NeuroBolix Shake – The go-to meal replacement shake supporting neurological function

O3Max – A high-potency fish oil supplement supporting the reduction of inflammation

Digest Enzymes – Breaks down possible IgG food sensitivity proteins

Fem Protx – Supports overall hormone health

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