We have all read the contradictory articles on caffeine and headaches. Some say that caffeine will give you headaches, others say that this is simply not the case. Well, we got fed up with this barrage of confusing information and decided to get to the bottom of it once and for all. This is what we found.
Coffee has traditionally been seen as having a complicated relationship with headache and migraine. Studies have been published indicating that it both triggers and inhibits them.
The reason for the confusion is that the focus was on the wrong area – how caffeine affects headaches – rather than on the real cause behind the headache in question.
What Can Caffeine Tell Us About The Cause of A Headache?
The experts at The Headache Clinic explain (1):
The confusion is because caffeine has been shown to cause the blood vessels and the arteries to narrow.
If caffeine helps to reduce the headache then the headaches are likely caused by swollen/ or dilated arteries. The caffeine then narrows or constricts the arteries causing the headache to ease off and indicating that the headaches are arterial.
If caffeine triggers a headache, this is because the narrowed blood vessels reduce the blood flow to the muscles, so the muscles start to cramp indicating that their muscles are the main cause of the pain.
At the same time, caffeine does not directly cause headaches, but too much of the substance can trigger “caffeine rebound”.
A caffeine rebound headache occurs from withdrawal of caffeine after a sufferer continually consumes too much of the substance. This is very applicable during a religious fasting period. Though the physical side effects can be severe, only 2% of the population suffers from caffeine rebound.
Caffeine Should Not Be Used to Treat Headaches
Dr Elliot Shevel is South Africa’s migraine surgery pioneer and the medical director of The Headache Clinic. He explains why caffeine should not be used to treat arterial headaches, despite its potential inhibiting capabilities. “The effects on the brain can vary tremendously depending upon how often you use it,” he says. (2)
“With daily or near daily caffeine exposure, the brain may develop a tolerance for the drug. Dependency develops when the brain expects that an additional dose of caffeine will be coming soon. If that caffeine expectation is unmet, a withdrawal syndrome results which includes headache as a prominent symptom. This will come alongside fatigue, trouble concentrating, nausea and other symptoms suggesting of migraine. (3)
Common Caffeine Containing Products
It is important to know what products contain caffeine,” says Dr Shevel. “This way you can monitor your intake and prevent a dependency on caffeine.”
Examples of products that contain caffeine are:
- Cocoa and chocolate
- Soft drinks / energy drinks / sports drinks
- Over the counter stimulants / pain relievers
- Cold remedies
Basically, caffeine in an isolated form does not have to be the cause of your afternoon headache, but Dr Shevel warns us that “the excessive and chronic consumption of caffeine promotes a state of cortical hyper excitability that can intensify a primary headache or trigger a headache due to excessive analgesic use”.