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What causes headaches?

Headaches: The top 7 triggers

Having a headache can really make it unbearable to keep your eyes open. Usually, a headache is a dull, aching pain behind the eyes, but headaches can present in many ways and forms, depending on the cause. 

Migraines, tension headaches and cluster headaches, in their variants, are the most commonly experienced.

What causes headaches? 

Headaches can mean anything from dehydration to a brain tumour, explains Affinity Health. A headache can be a symptom of a larger issue or even a condition on its own. Headaches, migraines and other afflictions can be difficult to diagnose. There are over 150 types of headaches, each with its own trigger.

A headache’s cause and trigger are two different things. A headache can be caused by sinusitis, but be triggered by dust or pollen. 

So the underlying issue that causes the headache is irrelevant to what triggers it. The triggers noted below are external factors that can trigger headaches and migraines in anyone, whether you’re healthy or diagnosed with an underlying cause. 


Most headaches and migraines can be linked to stress. When you are stressed, the muscles in the neck and head constrict. This can cause the stressed person to feel pain from tensing the area for prolonged periods of time. 

“It’s believed to start in the muscles,” says Dr Sait Ashina, a neurologist who specialises in headache treatment at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.  Ashina told Harvard;: “When tension headaches become frequent, the pain in shoulder and neck muscles is felt by the brain as pain in the head.” Stress is also a common trigger for a migraine headache, which begins on one side of the head, throbs or pounds and makes you sensitive to light and sound; it can last for hours or days.

Tension headaches are caused by stress. They are characterised as a dull ache that usually starts at the back of the head. The pain then moves slowly to the front of the forehead. 

People who get headaches when they are stressed out, also complain of light sensitivity. A painful jaw and tight facial muscles are also quite common symptoms of stress headaches. 

Many describe the pain as a tightening around the head and face. 

Tension headaches are split between episodic tension headaches, which happen less than 15 days a month, and chronic tension headaches, which happen more than 15 days a month.


Ever had a headache just before your period? Perhaps you’re going through menopause and noticed that you get frequent headaches?

Changes in oestrogen levels are associated with migraines in women.


If you aren’t getting enough sleep, it could trigger headaches. “We don’t know why, but we do know that there’s a correlation and that sleep can lead to pain relief. Sometimes people feel better after taking a nap,” Dr Ashina says.

In 2011, Missouri State University researchers published a study that indicated that a lack of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is linked to more painful headaches. They found that a lack of sleep increases the creation of proteins in the body that cause chronic pain. 

According to Healthline, these proteins reduce the body’s threshold for experiencing pain and can spark intense migraine headaches.

However, some research indicates that too much sleep can also trigger migraines.


If you drink more than two cups of coffee a day or you’ve recently cut down, you could be triggering your headaches!

The comedown from a caffeine high can be the same as a hangover. Drinking loads of caffeine narrows the blood vessels that surround your brain. When you go cold turkey, the blood vessels widen with each heartbeat — resulting in a pounding headache. Drinking some coffee could in fact act as a pain killer. 

It is all very confusing, but caffeine is used in popular pain killers.

Caffeine helps reduce inflammation, and that can bring relief, WebMD elaborates.  Aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen work faster when combined with caffeine.


Bright lights are a very common trigger for headaches. Whether it is natural sunlight or florescent bulbs, people who also suffer from light sensitivity complain of intense headaches when they are suddenly exposed to bright lights. 

Light sensitivity is arguably the most commonly reported migraine symptom and trigger. 

A recent survey cited on Migrain.com explains that out of 4,000 people who regularly suffer from migraines, 89% became sensitive to light during an attack. In addition, analyses have shown that photophobia and light sensitivity can linger during the postdrome or recovery phase after a migraine attack. This means that light can cause pain in the eyes and head before, during and after attacks. 

Sit up straight

Poor posture has been linked to recurring headaches. Slouching puts extra strain on the neck and shoulders. This affects the muscles in the head and face, causing headaches. 

Avoid sitting or standing in one position for a long period of time, advises the NHS. Make sure that your lower back is supported by your chair, especially if you sit for extended periods. 

If you work in a call centre, especially holding a handset between your head and shoulder can strain muscles and cause headaches – so it is wise for the company to invest in headsets for the well-being of the staff.

If you have noticed one or more of these triggers, try to find alternative ways to live that make it possible for you to avoid setting off your headaches. 

However, it is always advisable to do this with the guidance of a qualified medical professional. 

From cover for the kids in the Affinity Junior option to sufficient health insurance for your elderly parents with Affinity senior, everyone in your family has an equal opportunity for cover.

Affinity has a day-to-day plan, a hospital plan and even a combined plan to meet your family’s needs. But even more impressive is the ability to mix and match and find a plan for each family member, from grandparents to new-borns.

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