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Headache Myths: Busted

Discover the truth about head pain and spare yourself the suffering.

As common as headaches are, there is still much misunderstanding about what they are and how to treat them. For instance, there’s more than one type—you might have a tension headache (the most common variety), a sinus headache, or a nighttime headache. Each one follows its own treatment plan, but before you can deal with the specifics, you have to sort through a myriad of myths about headaches in general. Separating fact from fiction will help you find relief and get on with your life, so read on for the top headache myths out there—and for the truth behind them.

Myth: Headaches and migraines are the same thing.

Truth: The most comment type of headaches, referred to as “tension headaches,” are recognizable by the sensation of tightening pressure across your forehead or on the sides and back of your head—that “head in a vise” feeling. Tension headaches are usually not accompanied by nausea, vomiting, or visual disturbances; it’s migraines that are often coupled with these symptoms.1 Researchers think that migraines and headaches even have different causes and biological mechanisms for creating pain.2

Myth: The bigger the stress, the more likely you’ll get a headache.

Truth: It’s easy to think that a change in job or marriage status, a move, or other major life stressors are the dominant cause of tension headaches. But it’s the everyday stuff—sitting in a traffic jam, too-tight deadlines, your neighbor playing their music too loud—that is more likely to trigger tension headache trouble. On top of that, stressors like these often make you clench your jaw or tense your shoulders, which can escalate the likelihood of a headache.3

Myth: Sugar causes headaches.

Truth: It’s actually a low blood sugar that can cause a dull ache in your head. In some people, blood sugar spikes and then falls after eating lots of simple carbohydrates (that includes refined carbs like white bread and pasta, as well as pastries and cookies), and it’s that drop a little while later that causes symptoms such as headache, lightheadedness, and weakness.4

Myth: Caffeine is bad for headaches.

Truth: Research has found that caffeine can boost the potency of over-the-counter painkillers, such as aspirin and acetaminophen.5, 6 Without caffeine, a 40% higher dose of these analgesics would be required to achieve the same level of pain relief.6 That’s why caffeine is in Excedrin® Extra Strength and Excedrin® Tension Headache formulas.7

Myth: Men are as likely to get tension headaches as women.

Truth: Nobody knows exactly why, but women outnumber men when it comes to headaches. For every two men who are hit with headaches, three women get them.8

Myth: Tension headaches go away after a few hours.

Truth: Tension headaches can last from just minutes to days.9 The good news: you can find relief. Treatment options ranging from massage and relaxation exercises to applying ice packs and taking over-the-counter medications.10

Myth: Sinus headaches are caused by allergies.

Truth: These might not be caused by allergies, although they can be exacerbated by them. When allergies inflame your sinuses, it prevents mucus from draining out like it should, and your body broadcasts the problem to you often in the form of pain in the forehead, cheekbones, or bridge of the nose. Sometimes when you treat the allergies, the headache doesn’t go away; so you may need appropriate headache treatment, too.11, 12

Myth: Nighttime headaches only affect you at night.

Truth: Despite the name, nighttime headaches often spill over into the morning. How? The pain keeps you awake, costing you precious hours of sleep. Lack of sleep is known to be a headache trigger (in fact, one survey found 7 in 10 headache sufferers reported lack of sleep as a major trigger), and as a result, sufferers find themselves still fending off the pain come morning.13

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1. “Tension Headache: Symptoms and Causes.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 30 June 2016, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/tension-headache/symptoms-causes/dxc-20211470.

2. Ashina, Sait, et al. “Pathophysiology of Migraine and Tension-Type Headache.” Techniques in Regional Anesthesia and Pain Management, W.B. Saunders, 4 Feb. 2013, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1084208X12000031.

3. “Headaches: Reduce Stress to Prevent the Pain.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 31 July 2015, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/tension-headache/in-depth/headaches/art-20046707.

4. “Hypoglycemia.” National Headache Foundation, 25 Oct. 2007, www.headaches.org/2007/10/25/hypoglycemia/.

5. “Does Caffeine Trigger or Treat Headaches?” National Headache Foundation, 24 July 2009, www.headaches.org/2009/07/24/does-caffeine-trigger-or-treat-headaches/.

6. Laska, E M, et al. “Caffeine as an Analgesic Adjuvant.” JAMA., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 6 Apr. 1984, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6366275.

7. “Excedrin® Usage & Proper Dosing.” Excedrin®, www.excedrin.com/safety-dosing/.

8. “Headache Disorders.” World Health Organization, Apr. 2016, www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs277/en/.

9. “Infrequent Episodic Tension-Type Headache.” ICHD-3 Beta The International Classification of Headache Disorders 3rd Edition (Beta Version), www.ichd-3.org/2-tension-type-headache/2-1-infrequent-episodic-tension-type-headache/.

10. Millea, Paul J., and Jonathan J. Brodie. “Tension-Type Headache.” American Family Physician, 1 Sept. 2002, www.aafp.org/afp/2002/0901/p797.html.

11. “Sinus Infection.” ACAAI Public Website, acaai.org/allergies/types/sinus-infection.

12. “Migraines vs. Sinus Headaches.” American Migraine Foundation, americanmigrainefoundation.org/understanding-migraine/sinus-headaches/.

13. “4 Reasons to Treat Your Nighttime Headaches.” Excedrin®, www.excedrin.com/headaches/nighttime/4-reasons-to-treat-nighttime-headaches/.

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