6 Common Migraine Triggers to Avoid

Learn how to anticipate what triggers your headaches

woman covered with pillows on couch
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Headache triggers vary widely, and no one person experiences headaches the same way as another. There are common triggers, however, and learning to anticipate problems before they start is a great way to prevent headaches. For now, consider if any of the following triggers could be causing your headaches.

Stress at Home and at Work

It’s not just your boss, although he may be a large part of it. Your job itself can be the problem.

It’s a commonly held belief that increased stress levels can contribute to headaches, especially the tension variety. Demanding employment, stressful work environments, and problems with conflict in the workplace can all be great sources of stress. So if there is a way to soften your work environment or even change jobs all together, it may be time to consider it.

Stress at home too, either due to relationship problems, complex family dynamics, or just the everyday worries of finances and children, may trigger headaches. Consider seeking therapy and/or an outlet from the stress like regular exercise, date nights, or family game nights.

Weather

Studies show that weather changes may actually trigger headaches, especially migraines and tension headaches. For instance, in a March 2009 study, researchers found that a higher temperature was associated with a higher incidence of headaches. Other weather changes linked to headaches include low barometric pressure and bright sunlight.

There may not be much you can do to change the weather, but you can learn to cope effectively when your unique weather trigger arises. For instance, wearing a hat and sunglasses may prevent sun-related headaches. Likewise, if thunderstorms trigger your headaches, talk with your doctor about taking a headache-alleviating medication when storm clouds are brewing.

Strong Scents

Your sense of smell can be sensitive, and in the end, it can end up playing a large role in headaches. Every person is quite different, but many people report that certain scents seem to trigger migraines, both with and without auras. Paints and solvents, strong perfumes, cigarette smoke, food smells, dust, and even some flowers can be a source of migraines. It will take a lot of trial and error to determine if there are any offensive smells, but knowing what to avoid will pay off in the long run.

Hair or Head Accessories

There are urban legends about dangerous hairstyles and life-threatening hairdos, but there is at least an element of truth in them. Any hairdo, especially a tight ponytail, can cause strain on the connective tissue of the scalp, which can lead to headaches. Some men report that extended use of baseball caps can also cause a similar problem. Swimming goggles or a helmet can similarly cause a headache. The good news is that removing the compressive object should completely alleviate the headache.

Nutrition

Alcohol intake and skipping your daily coffee intake are common triggers of both migraines and tension headaches. Skipping meals and dehydration may also trigger headaches, as do certain food products, like monosodium glutamate (MSG). Eating well-balanced meals at regular intervals throughout the day and abstaining or moderating your alcohol and caffeine intake can help prevent headaches.

Posture and Neck Problems

Tension headaches are often a result of muscular problems in the head and neck. Hunching your shoulders, using a chair with poor low back support, staring at a computer monitor that is too low or too high, or using your shoulder and ear to steady a phone are all examples of poor posture. If you are working, your office should have someone who can do an ergonomic assessment of your work space to ensure it's set up in a way to prevent headaches.

Sources:

Friedman DI. De Ver Dye T. Migraine and the Environment. Headache. 2009 Jun;49(6):941-52.

Kimoto, K., et al. (2011). Influence of barometric pressure in patients with migraine headache. Internal Medicine. 50(18):1923-8.

Krymchantowski, A.V. (2010). Headaches due to external compression. Current Pain and Headache Reports, Aug;14(4):321-4.

Mukamal, K.J., Wellenius, G.A., Suh, H.H., & Mittleman, M.A. (2009). Weather and air pollution as triggers of severe headaches. Neurology, 72:922-7.

Wöber, C. Holzhammer, J. Zeitlhofer, J. Wessely, P. & Wöber-Bingöl, C. (2006). Trigger factors of migraine and tension-type headache: experience and knowledge of the patients. The Journal of Headache and Pain, 7:188–95.

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