Treatment of Caffeine Headaches

Because of the average American’s dependence on their morning cup of coffee, caffeine headaches are a common problem.  Even those who never drink coffee, soda, or energy drinks may experience caffeine headaches, often without realizing it, because caffeine is so commonly used in pain medication.  Continue reading to learn about the three types of caffeine headaches and how to prevent and treat them.

Types of Caffeine Headaches

Caffeine can cause headaches by its direct effect or through withdrawal effect due to excessive consumption. Excessive consumption of caffeine-containing medications (over-the-counter or prescription) can lead to rebound headaches.

Withdrawal Headaches

The most common type of caffeine headache is caused by withdrawal. Experiencing a withdrawal headache means that you have developed an addiction to caffeine.  Physical dependence typically develops after at weeks of consuming over 200 mg of caffeine a day (roughly 2-3 cups of brewed coffee).  Sometimes minor dependence can be developed after only a few days of consumption by those who rarely or never ingest caffeine. Some call this physical dependence an addiction, but addiction usually refers to psychological dependence and is rare with caffeine.

Withdrawal headaches are experienced when one who is consuming large amounts of caffeine reduces or eliminates their caffeine consumption. Indications of dependence include feeling the following symptoms before you reach your typical level of consumption: fatigue, headache, inability to concentrate, irritability, etc.

Overuse of caffeine can also cause jitters, nausea, increased heart rate, anxiety, and dizziness.  These milder symptoms are warnings to stop consumption before an overdose and more serious health problems.

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Rebound Headaches

Another type of caffeine headache is the rebound headache. Because caffeine is very effective in helping pain medication to treat different types of headaches, pharmaceutical companies often include caffeine in the medicine itself (such as Excedrin, Fioricet, and other). Rebound headaches are caused by over-medication with painkillers that contain caffeine. The “rebound” occurs when the effects of the caffeine-based medication wear off, causing headaches to worsen again.

Headache due to the direct effect of caffeine

Some people who are prone to having headaches will develop a headache from even a small amount of caffeine because of its effect on blood vessels, which are intimately involved in the process of developing a headache. Caffeine is also known to deplete magnesium, which can also lead to a headache.

What are caffeine headaches, and what causes them?

The phrase “caffeine headache” may actually apply to three types of headaches: withdrawal headaches due to overuse, rebound headaches, and headaches due to the direct effect of caffeine. Generally, each type of caffeine headache is caused by the following:

  • Withdrawal headaches: Related to a caffeine dependence, these headaches are experienced in those who have become reliant or addicted to caffeine and suddenly reduce caffeine consumption or do not get their usual dose of caffeine on time. This is why some people always wake up with a headache – they haven’t had caffeine all night.
  • headaches due to the direct effect of caffeien: These headaches are caused by drinking even small amounts of caffeine in sensitive individuals.
  • Rebound headaches: These often occur when patients take medication containing caffeine and continue in their normal caffeine consumption (drinking their daily coffee or energy drink).  With a rebound headache, the patient will feel temporary headache relief from whatever pain they were attempting to treat, only to experience a return of the headache later (hence the nickname “rebound” headache).

What are caffeine headache triggers?

Each type of caffeine headache has different types of triggers.

  • Withdrawal headaches: Triggered by suddenly (or not so suddenly) reducing caffeine intake after a caffeine dependency has formed.Too much caffeine can trigger headaches. While this amount varies from person to person, generally caffeine intake greater than 200mg can cause overuse headaches. A caffeine headache is one of the milder symptoms (others include nausea, increased heart rate, and anxiety) of caffeine overdose.  If a patient ignores these early symptoms and continues to consume caffeine, the patient may begin to experience more serious symptoms such as insomnia, heart palpitations or cardiac arrest.
  • Headache due to the direct effect of caffeine: Related to sensitivity to caffeine.

What are the symptoms of caffeine headaches?

Though the causes of caffeine headaches are varied, the symptoms from one headache to another are very similar.

  • Location: Caffeine headaches typically begin behind the eyes and then spread upward.
  • Type: Usually, patients describe a sharp or throbbing pain during caffeine headaches.
  • Severity: The pain varies from person to person, ranging all the way from mild to debilitating.
  • Duration: Headaches related to caffeine range from 30 minutes to hours and in severe cases it can last for many days or even months.

Treatment Options

Prevention

To prevent headaches due to caffeine the following measures can be undertaken.

  • Withdrawal or overuse headaches: Gradual Reduction. The best way to prevent withdrawal is to try cutting back gradually in your caffeine consumption. Though the symptoms of withdrawal may still be felt, they will be much less severe.
  • The most obvious and effective way to prevent this type of caffeine headache is to simply limit your level of consumption. Monitor caffeine use during the day (most packaged foods, drinks and medications contain their amount of caffeine). Caffeine-induced headaches: Avoid all caffeine.

Immediate Treatment

Again, the immediate treatment for caffeine headaches is related to the type of headache.

  • Withdrawal headaches: A controlled dose of additional caffeine combined with a caffeine-free medication work best.
  • Rebound headaches: Some patients set themselves up for a rebound headache by supplementing their medication with a small dose of caffeine, ignorant of the fact that their medication already contains caffeine. Remedies for rebound headaches include peppermint tea, massages, drinking plenty of water, and rest.

One of the best methods of treating a caffeine headache of any kind is an effective, but caffeine-free medication such as Migralex. Migralex treats headaches and is able to reduce the pain and cranial pressure associated with caffeine headaches without the risk of a caffeine rebound headache.

Caffeine Headache Resources