Know your triggers


Loading ImageDo you find that your head spends more time in your hands than upright on your shoulders? If your head often feels like a battleground, you’re not alone. More than eight million Brits suffer with migraines[i], and almost everyone can relate to the inconvenience of a headache.

At best, head pains can leave us feeling foggy and confused, at worse they can be debilitating migraines. Migraines not only feel very painful, but can also cause symptoms such as sickness, nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light or noise[ii]. Other symptoms can include visual disturbances, dizziness and vertigo[iii].

The good news is that both headaches and migraines are often triggered by factors we can control, such as stress and the food we eat[iv].

Here are some of my simple tips to help keep you clear headed, and avoid the common migraine and headache triggers.
–    Dr Sarah Jarvis, practising GP, media medic and women’s health spokesperson

Eat for an easy life    

You may enjoy a cuppa and a chocolate bar come 3pm, but these can do more harm than good. Certain foods and drinks are well known headache and migraine triggers.  As well as chocolate, other foods such as ice-cream, cheese and citrus fruits are famed for their unforgiving headache-inducing qualities. Drinks to watch out for include alcohol and anything caffeinated[v]. At the other end of the spectrum, not eating regularly can also bring on migraines[vi].

One of the best ways to discover what’s causing your migraine or headache is to keep a migraine diary. This will help you spot patterns and deduce what might be your trigger. There are plenty of migraine diary templates available online, however you can find one available in both Excel and PDF format here:

Forecast your future

Sudden changes in weather can commonly trigger migraines and headaches[vii], and many people can experience some form of discomfort such as a ‘stuffy head’. You might find that high humidity, rapid changes in temperature or thunderstorms can bring them on.

Although we’d all love to be able to change the weather at will, it’s never going to be an option! But, you can be prepared. If troublesome looking weather is forecast make sure you have some treatment with you in advance [viii] . Beware of continually popping painkillers though, as if you take them more than twice a week, they can actually make your headaches worse[ix]. Opt for preventative treatments which treat the cause, rather than treating just the symptoms.

For migraine suffers, Imigran Recovery treats the cause of migraines, as it contains sumatriptan, which is a specific drug that constricts the blood vessels to stop the pain of migraine attacks [x]. You can get it over the counter at your pharmacy (after consulting with your pharmacist), so you can keep it in your bag just in case!

Don’t strain about it

Although almost all forms of exercise are good, and can help lessen the frequency or painfulness of headaches and migraines, strenuous exercise (including sex) can be a trigger.

To avoid this, stick to a regular exercise routine and keep away from exercises, such as lifting weights, which can cause strain[xi]. Yoga can be particularly helpful as it helps the body release tension and relax.

Find your Zen

Sudden changes in stress hormones cause rapid releases of neurotransmitters, causing blood vessels to constrict and dilate. This may be why you can get a tension headache, or migraine, when you are stressed, or when you quickly relax for the weekend[xii]!

Everyone has their own stress reliever, whether that’s meditation, a jog round the block or a relaxing bath (scented candles optional!). Stress levels can build up rapidly, so make sure you regularly relieve your tension throughout the week to help keep your mind calm and your moods steady. If you start feeling anxious, try taking a few deep breaths or a short walk[xiii].

Sit up straight

Hunching over your desk or a poor standing posture can cause even more tension to build up in the back, neck and shoulders. Not only is this a major culprit in causing back pain, but it could also trigger throbbing head pains. Always make sure you sit up straight, using a back support if necessary. Your chair should be adjusted so that your feet are flat on the floor, your back is supported, your screen is eye level and your wrists and forearms are straight, with your elbows to the side of your body[xiv]. Make sure you take regular breaks from your desk, even if it is just to get a glass of water!

For more serious problems with your posture, you could consider seeing a physiotherapist or Alexander technique practitioner.

Smell a rat

Certain smells or particularly heavy fragrances can trigger a headache or migraine.  If you start suffering shortly after doing housework, wearing a certain perfume or washing your hair, it could be the scent that is the problem. Avoid strong perfumes and use fragrance-free products as much as possible. Ensure that you have a good flow of air in a room, using a fan if you can’t open the windows.[xv]

Sleep well

Burning the candle at both ends, doesn’t just leave you a bit groggy, it can cause a headache or migraine attack. But it’s not just too little sleep that can be the problem, too much sleep also breaks a routine[xvi].

Try maintaining a regular sleeping pattern, even at weekends. If you have trouble with sleeping, avoid caffeine or exercising just before going to bed and try some simply relaxation techniques, such as conscious deep breathing.[xvii]

See the solution

Eye strain can commonly cause headaches, particularly if you spend a long time looking at computer screens. Other symptoms also include eye discomfort, headaches, itchy eyes and difficulty in focusing[xviii].

Make sure you regularly get your eyes tested and take regular breaks from computer screens. While thinking, try looking into the distance or out of a window.

[vi] Kelman L. Cephalalgia. 2007;27:394-402