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Tension Headaches & Caffeine

By Beth Greenwood ; Updated August 14, 2017

When you have a headache all you think about is the pain you are in. You probably don’t think about the fact that there are different types of headaches with different causes, different symptoms and sometimes different remedies. Tension headache is one of them. The University of California Health Services reports that tension headache is the most common headache, and the pain can come and go or it can be continuous.

About Tension Headaches

Tension headaches result from tight muscles in the shoulders, neck, scalp or jaw. In addition, stress, depression or anxiety can be a component of a tension headache. They are more likely to occur if you are short on sleep, have been missing meals or regularly use alcohol or street drugs. Clenching your teeth, grinding your jaw -- something you may do in your sleep without even being aware of it -- and holding your head in one position for long periods of time can also be factors in tension headache. People who work at computers or microscopes or who have poor sleep positions can also suffer from headaches. A tension headache is commonly on both sides of the head; they may start at the back of the head and spread forward. Muscles in the neck, shoulders and jaw may feel sore, as if in a tight band or vise.

Caffeine and Headaches

Caffeine has been found to increase the frequency of all kinds of headaches. Reporting on the Head-HUNT study in March 2004, “The Journal of Headache and Pain” noted that high caffeine consumption led to increased headache frequency. Yet research from the Diamond Headache Clinic in Chicago, Illinois showed that ibuprofen plus caffeine actually helped relieve tension headaches. The study was reported in the September 2000 issue of “Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics.”

Caffeine's Dual Nature

How can caffeine both help tension headaches and make them worse? The answer lies in the way caffeine works and in its addictive properties. Caffeine is used in pain relievers like Anacin and Excedrin because it makes them more effective. The Cleveland Clinic says that caffeine also improves the absorption of the medications so that they act more quickly. But caffeine is addictive, which means if you are used to ingesting it on a regular basis -- whether from coffee, tea, sodas, chocolate or medication -- and then stop, you can develop withdrawal symptoms, which include headaches. In addition, frequent regular use of any medication can cause what is known as rebound headache; the only way to resolve rebound headaches is to stop using medication entirely.

Considerations and Warnings

If you suffer from tension headaches, do consider factors such as working conditions, the pillow you use and how much stress you have in your life. And while you might want to try becoming caffeine free, taper off rather than stopping abruptly so you don’t go into withdrawal. If your tension headaches are frequent and severe, see a health care professional.

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