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Expert Q&A

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What's causing my recurring headaches?

Asked by Katlyn deBlanc, Portland,Oregon

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I get major headaches often. They're not migraines, but the pain is constant. Sometimes when I wake up from sleeping, I get them. Could this be because of food allergies? Or something else?

Expert Bio Picture

Living Well Expert Dr. Jennifer Shu Pediatrician,
Children's Medical Group

Expert answer

The most common type of headache is called a tension headache, which feels like tightened muscles around the head, neck and shoulders and can last for several minutes or even days. Tension headaches are sometimes caused by stress, muscle stiffness or clenching or grinding one's teeth. Less commonly, cluster headaches can cause sudden sharp pains repeatedly over a period of several weeks at a time. Migraine headaches are often severe enough to interfere with one's usual activities and may be paired with vomiting or extreme sensitivity to noise or light. Sinus infections also frequently cause headaches, often on the forehead or over the cheeks, with increased pain when one leans forward or lies down.

In some people, certain foods can trigger migraines or other headaches. This problem is usually not a true food allergy, which involves the immune system, but rather an intolerance or sensitivity. Symptoms from food sensitivities may start about 30 minutes to several hours after eating the offending food, which may explain why some people get these headaches while sleeping. Common food triggers include monosodium glutamate (MSG), some food dyes, tyramine (a substance found in aged cheeses, red wine, beer and overripe fruit), pickled foods, some processed meats and caffeine from coffee, tea or chocolate. On the flip side, the absence of certain foods (such as skipping meals and having a low blood sugar, or suffering from "withdrawal" after the regular intake of caffeine) can cause headaches as well.

For headaches that keep recurring, see your doctor and be ready to report details about the quality of the headache (such as whether they are sharp, dull or throbbing in nature), the severity of the pain, the frequency of the headaches and whether the headaches are related to any activities such as sleep, exercise or eating certain foods. It's also helpful to note if other parts of the body are affected (such as eye pain, cold symptoms or vomiting). Finally, let your doctor know what medications or remedies you are taking (since some of these can cause headaches as a side effect) as well as what you do that makes the headaches better.

Although most headaches are not caused by an underlying medical problem, headaches can sometimes reflect serious conditions such as a brain tumor or bleeding inside the head. It's important to seek medical care right away if a headache is sudden and extremely painful, appears after trauma to the head or is associated with abnormal nerve or muscle function (such as vision problems, slurred speech, weakness of the arms or legs, seizures or confusion). Tests may be performed to check for any medical problems that need immediate treatment.

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