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Can Diet Soda Cause Tension Headaches?

By M. Gideon Hoyle ; Updated August 14, 2017

Tension headache is a common type of headache characterized by pain associated with a feeling of muscle tightness in the scalp, head or neck. Some people only experience this type of headache occasionally, while others develop chronic, regularly occurring symptoms. Diet and non-diet sodas that contain the stimulant caffeine can potentially trigger the onset of a tension headache.

Tension Headache Basics

As much as 78 percent of the U.S. population experiences some form of tension headache, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Common symptoms of the condition include a noticeable contraction, or tightness, of the neck and scalp muscles and pain or discomfort that begins at the back of the head and gradually works its way forward across the head and scalp. Depending on your circumstances, the pain of a tension headache can manifest as a squeezing sensation or as a feeling of dull pressure. In addition to pain in the upper portion of your head, you can also develop pain in your shoulders, jaw and neck.

Caffeine and Tension Headache

Caffeine is a bitter substance found in the seeds or leaves of a number of plants, including the plants that provide the basic materials for various forms of coffee, tea and chocolate. Food manufacturers can also produce the chemical artificially, and natural and artificial forms of caffeine are common ingredients in both diet and non-diet sodas. Consumption of any source of caffeine can potentially trigger the onset of a tension headache, the UMMC and the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s MedlinePlus report.

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Caffeine and Headache Relief

Despite its potential to trigger a tension headache, caffeine is a common ingredient in a wide range of nonprescription and prescription medications designed to treat headaches or other sources of pain. In this setting, it provides a benefit by increasing the efficiency and rapidity of these medications’ painkilling effects. However, if you take a caffeine-containing headache medication in combination with caffeine-containing diet or non-diet sodas, you can increase your risks for experiencing a type of headache called a rebound headache, which occurs when you overuse headache remedies. Use of a caffeine-free headache product in combination with caffeinated beverages can also trigger a rebound headache.

Additional Diet Soda Considerations

Non-caffeinated diet and non-diet sodas are not specifically indicated as triggers for tension headaches. However, caffeine-free and decaffeinated beverages still commonly contain some caffeine, the Cleveland Clinic explains. While the sweeteners and additional chemicals found in diet soda are generally considered safe, consuming more than one diet or regular soda per day can potentially increase your chances of becoming obese and developing an obesity-related disorder, such as type 2 diabetes. Healthier alternatives to diet soda include water, fruit juice and skim milk. Consult your doctor for more information on tension headaches and the effects of caffeine and diet soda consumption.

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