Headaches are nobody's idea of a good time. The same goes for being constipated. Nonetheless, many people endure both, getting headaches when they're constipated. That's often because a number of underlying conditions can trigger both at the same time.
Quick Look at the Conditions
Constipation is defined as having less than three bowel movements a week. Passing stools that are hard, dry, painful, lumpy or difficult to excrete is a sign of constipation. About 16 of every 100 American adults struggle with constipation, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. The rate goes up among those 60 and older: 33 of 100 have constipation symptoms.
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The risk for constipation is highest among seniors, pregnant women and those coping with gastrointestinal disorders. If you don't eat enough fiber or drink enough water, you also face a higher risk.
Headaches, meanwhile, are incredibly common and our most frequent source of pain, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. As many as 150 different types exist. Some are primary, meaning they're not driven by another medical problem. Those include migraines and tension headaches. Others are secondary, meaning some underlying fever, infection, pain, stress or trauma is to blame for the pounding in your head.
Read more: Redundant Colon & Constipation Diet
Headaches, Constipation and Preexisting Conditions
One link between headaches and constipation is celiac disease, says NIDDK. This digestive disorder affects people who are hypersensitive to gluten. Gluten is a protein most commonly found in wheat, rye and barley, and it is a key ingredient in pasta, bread, cookies and cakes.
When people with celiac disease eat gluten, they can develop bloating, diarrhea, nausea and constipation. And among adults with celiac disease, headaches are not uncommon. A study reported in the November 2014 issue of Frontiers in Neurology found a link between celiac disease and a heightened risk for migraines.
The solution to preventing a celiac-driven bout of constipation and headaches is straightforward, if restrictive. "The only way to treat celiac disease is complete avoidance of foods with gluten," says Lona Sandon, PhD, RDN, program director and associate professor of clinical nutrition at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. That means there's absolutely no room for leeway: "You cannot sometimes eat gluten with celiac disease," she stresses.
Premenstrual syndrome is another common source of both headaches and constipation, according to the National Headache Foundation. So are chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, a painful muscular disorder, according to the University of Washington Department of Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine.
Read more: Does Oatmeal Help Cure Constipation?
Check Your Medicine Cabinet
Many prescription and over-the-counter drugs caution that constipation and headaches are both possible side effects. Opiate pain medicines are one example, according to Harvard Medical School. These powerful painkillers are notorious for making it difficult to move your bowels. And frequent opioid use can boost your risk of chronic migraine, according to the American Migraine Foundation.
Indeed, sometimes medications specifically designed to treat one of the two conditions can occasionally trigger the other. That is the case with triptans, including sumatriptan (Imitrex), according to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Prescribed for the treatment of migraines, in some cases the drug can cause both constipation and rebound headaches.
Other drugs that sometimes cause both headaches and constipation include cholesterol-lowering statins such as atorvastatin (Lipitor) and simvastatin (Zocor), and high blood pressure diuretics, such as chlorothiazide (Diuril) and amiloride (Midamor), according to the U.K. National Health Service. Headache and constipation are also side effects of calcium channel blockers, another type of blood pressure medicine, says the American Heart Association.
Diet May Be a Factor
Certain foods may trigger migraines, including alcohol, chocolate, aged cheeses, MSG, yeast and cured meats. And in some cases, those very same high-fat rich foods can also cause you to become constipated. If constipation is a problem, NIDDK suggests avoiding chips, fast food, meat and processed and prepared foods (like frozen meals).
- Harvard Medical School: “Pain Relief, Opioids, and Constipation”
- University of Washington: “Fibromyalgia”
- National Headache Foundation: “Menstrual Migraine”
- American Heart Association: “Types of Blood Pressure Medications”
- National Health Service (UK): “Side Effects: Statins”
- Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: "Sumatriptan"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Migraine"
- Frontiers in Neurology: "Migraine Associated with Gastrointestinal Disorders: Review of the Literature and Clinical Implications"
- U.S. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Symptoms & Causes of Celiac Disease"
- U.S. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Constipation"
- U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: "Headache Information Page"
- American Migraine Foundation: "Medication Overuse Headache"
- NIDDK: "Eating, Diet and Nutrition for Constipation"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.