9 Common Causes for Migraines

Migraine headaches take a variety of forms, but the classic type involves intense, one-sided pain that is preceded by visual disturbances and lasts at least four hours. An estimated 13% of American adults suffer from causes for migraines, and they are particularly common in women aged 35-55. It is suspected that both blood vessel dilation and reduced serotonin levels may play a role, though there is still no universally accepted explanation for how these crippling headaches develop.

Thankfully, the good news is that certain key triggers have been established, and you can do much to avoid or compensate for these triggers. Here are nine of the most common causes for migraines.

Migraine headaches

1. An overwhelming environment

Sights, sounds and smells in an intense environment may all influence your likelihood of having a migraine. For example, some migraine sufferers notice that they often get headaches after being in a busy, bright airport, while others are troubled by the mix of strong perfumes in a department store. Other common environmental triggers include cigarette smoke, flashing lights during a show, loud music in a bar, or increasing levels of humidity. Look out for any such connections, and work to avoid spending much time in environments that expose you to your unique triggers.

2. Intense emotions

Sadness, fury, shock, and anxiety all have a proven link with an increase in migraine headache frequency, though you may find that only one of these negative emotions triggers your causes for migraines. It’s important to take good care of yourself after a difficult experience by making time to process events and deliberately trying to relax your body (whether through yoga, a hot bath or a good book). However, it is also worth noting that some people even find that strong positive emotions trigger migraines, making birthday celebrations, graduations and wedding days potentially hazardous!

3. Diet

A wide range of peer-reviewed studies shows that causes for migraines may be triggered by certain foods. If you’re trying to figure out whether your diet plays a role in your headaches, try excluding these foods one by one (for at least a month each) and documenting any noticeable changes in migraine pattern. The most common dietary triggers are citrus fruits, cheese, chocolate, and artificial sweeteners.

4. Hormonal fluctuations

Frequent hormone fluctuations may explain why women are much more prone to causes for migraines. In particular, low levels of both estrogen and progesterone right before menstruating seem to make many women more vulnerable to headaches (though a minority report being triggered by mid-cycle ovulation).

Response to hormonal contraceptives is mixed, with some women enjoying much-needed relief from causes for migraines while others complain that their headaches are worse than ever. To complicate matters, doctors may recommend migraine sufferers avoid estrogen-based contraceptives due to a potentially increased risk of stroke.

5. Muscle tension

Poor posture and lack of movement promote causes for migraines as well as tension headaches. If you’re stuck at a desk for most of the day, make an effort to get up and stretch or walk around when you can. Meanwhile, take a critical look at how you stand and sit, making adjustments that better support your muscles and joints. You may also want to consider investing in particularly supportive chairs or extra pillows.

6. Grinding your teeth

If you grind your teeth during the night (an unconscious habit called bruxism), you can end up with painful jaw joint inflammation. This inflammation seems to be linked to increased migraine frequency in some people, so it’s important to explore solutions with your dentist. A custom-fitted splint can reduce the pressure on your jaw joint while you sleep, and dental hypnosis also has a good success rate when it comes to reducing bruxism.

7. Sleep disturbances

Your sleep schedule also matters when it comes to migraines. In particular, frequently changing your schedule (e.g. as a result of shift work or international travels) may trigger migraines, as can a chronic lack of sleep. Aim to get around eight hours of sleep per night if you’re a migraine sufferer, and try to keep bedtimes consistent.

8. Alcohol

A few migraine sufferers find that all alcohol triggers migraines, but many notices that their reaction is exclusively related to drinking red wine. A staggering 20% of patients experience migraines after drinking red wine, while only 10% spot a connection with white wine. Since dehydration can also increase the likelihood of migraines, it’s also smart to drink at least a full glass of water for every alcoholic drink you consume.

9. Medication

Finally, if you’re taking sleeping pills, regular doses of painkillers, vasodilators (e.g. nitroglycerin) or anti-hypertensives for high blood pressure, your migraines may well be a side effect of medication. You might be able to transition to a similar drug that is less likely to cause headaches, but you should never stop taking any prescribed medication without discussing it with your doctor.

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