WHEN SHOULD I WORRY ABOUT...

Why Do I Keep Getting Headaches?

Aug. 16, 2021 - Katie McCallum

They cause pain ranging from mild to almost debilitating. They can feel different for different people. They can be infrequent or a regular nuisance in your life. They can be seemingly random but also self-inflected (thanks, red wine).

You've probably guessed what "they" are by now: Headaches.

"Headaches are one of the most common medical complaints doctors hear about, if not the most common. Most of the time, what people are experiencing are 'primary headaches' — meaning the pressure is physically in your head and not due to an underlying health condition," says Dr. Doha Ayish, neurologist at Houston Methodist.

The most common types of primary headaches are:

"Headaches can also sometimes be a symptom of something more serious, which is called a secondary headache," adds Dr. Ayish.

When headaches are mild and/or infrequent, you probably just pop a pain reliever and move about your business.

But if you keep getting headaches — day in, month out — you're probably looking to get to the bottom of your pain.

10 common headache triggers

Unfortunately, there are several everyday lifestyle choices and factors that can trigger a headache.

"Some headache triggers might be surprising, but most are things we already know can disrupt our productivity and quality of life," says Dr. Ayish. "Still, it's important to understand what can cause a headache so you can avoid one more easily."

Common headache triggers include:

So, if you keep getting headaches, one or more of these common triggers may be the culprit.

"Of the many factors that can lead to headaches, these are the most common, and several are also fairly easy to correct," adds Dr. Ayish. "One that may be a bit harder to get to the bottom of is headaches that are triggered by food. In this case, I recommend keeping a food/headache journal — logging your meals as well as when and how severe your headaches are."

Why headaches happen

It might not be top of mind when you actually have the headache, but you may eventually find yourself asking: What's going on when you have a headache?

"Unfortunately, we don't have a complete understanding of why headaches happen," says Dr. Ayish. "What we know is that they generally result from changes that occur to the nerves, blood vessels and muscles in and around your head or neck — causing pressure that stimulates receptors in the brain to signal pain."

The common headaches triggers mentioned above are the culprits, although, as Dr. Ayish notes, how exactly they trigger changes to the nerves, blood vessels and muscles around the brain is largely unknown. She also points out that the biology likely varies by type of headache, as does where the pain is felt and the best way to treat each type of headache.

"Secondary headaches, on the other hand, occur as a result of a larger health issue — meaning these headaches happen for reasons that are more nefarious than pressure changes in your head and neck."

When to see a doctor about your headaches

A headache here and there may not be too much of a concern. But if you are experiencing frequent or severe headaches, or if they're affecting your quality of life, it's important to talk to your doctor. (Related: 5 Signs It's Time to See a Doctor About Your Headaches)

He or she can help you identify what's triggering your headaches and suggest ways to prevent them in the future. Additionally, your doctor can evaluate you to rule out whether your headaches might be considered chronic, benefit from medications (such as in the case of migraines) or have a secondary cause. 

In some cases, a headache may even be a medical emergency. Seek immediate help if a headache:

  • Comes on suddenly and very quickly becomes severe
  • Feels like the worst headache in your life
  • Is accompanied by a stiff neck and/or fever
  • Is accompanied by a seizure, fainting, confusion or changes in personality
  • Begins right after an injury
  • Is accompanied by weakness, numbness or vision changes

Next Steps:

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