A headache can make you miserable — sometimes just for an hour or so, sometimes for days, especially if you suffer severe or repeated migraines. So you may reach for an over-the-counter migraine medication or perhaps a prescription. But it may not occur to you that those medications contain caffeine, and while caffeine can help relieve pain, it can also inflict headaches.
Caffeine the Drug
According to Drugs.com, caffeine is indeed a drug. A central nervous stimulant, it is quickly absorbed into the body and then taken up by the brain. A moderate intake is three 8 ounces cups of coffee a day. Those three cups contain about 250 milligrams of coffee, but caffeine content of coffee and other caffeine sources such as soda, tea or energy drinks is variable. Can have from 143 to 206 milligrams of caffeine per 16 ounce cup.
Caffeine and Headaches
When it comes to headaches, caffeine is a double-edged or perhaps even a many-edged sword. That’s because caffeine added to something like aspirin or acetaminophen can relieve a headache, but regular use of these pain relievers can also cause what is called rebound headache. Too much caffeine can cause caffeine intoxication — and headache is one symptom of this condition. And finally, while caffeine can help stop a migraine in people who don’t usually ingest it, that same caffeine can trigger migraines or make them worse.
What the Experts Say
Knut Hagen, Kari Thoresen, Lars Jacob Stovner and John-Anker Zwart noted in the March 2004 “The Journal of Headache and Pain” that high caffeine consumption tended to increase the frequency of headaches. Holly Pohler noted in a January 2010 article for the “Journal for Nurse Practitioners” that as little as 250 mg of caffeine could cause nausea and vomiting, agitation, nervousness, headache, tremor and sleep disturbances. Neurologist David Buchholz of Johns Hopkins University, author of “Heal Your Headache: The 1-2-3 Program for Taking Charge of Your Pain,” says that coffee may trigger a migraine. But he adds that while in the short term it may seem to be warding off the headaches, it causes rebound headache in the long term. He recommends migraine suffers completely eliminate caffeine in all forms.
Considerations and Warnings
So what’s the answer for you? You could try going without caffeine — and if you make that choice, says Drugs.com, you should taper off gradually rather than going cold turkey to avoid caffeine withdrawal headaches. But if you suffer from frequent, chronic or severe headaches, the best choice is to discuss your condition with a health-care professional.
- Drugs.com; Caffeine in the Diet; David C. Dugdale, III, M.D., David Zieve, M.D., M.H.A.; May 2009
- The University of Utah: http://www.math.utah.edu/~yplee/fun/caffeine.html
- “The Journal of Headache and Pain”; High Dietary Caffeine Consumption is Associated With a Modest Increase in Headache Prevalence: Results From The Head-HUNT Study; Knut Hagen, Kari Thoresen, Lars Jacob Stovner and John-Anker Zwart; March 2004
- Cleveland Clinic; Diseases and Conditions; Caffeine and Headaches; April 2011