How Caffeine Can Help—or Hurt—Your Headache

If you can’t get your brain started in the morning without a big cup of Joe, you know how effective caffeine is as a stimulant. But for people who suffer from migraines or chronic tension headaches, caffeine can also be an extremely effective remedy.

“There are many ways that caffeine helps reduce headache pain,” says Merle Diamond, MD, a spokesperson for the National Headache Foundation. “It works as a vasoconstrictor, meaning it narrows the blood vessels, restricting blood flow, which is helpful because blood vessels tend to enlarge before a headache,” she explains. She adds that caffeine also works as an anti-inflammatory and can help with the absorption of other headache medications.  

In fact, caffeine has been found to be such an effective headache treatment, that it is often an ingredient in several over-the-counter headache medications. According to the National Headache Foundation, when caffeine is added to a combination of acetaminophen and aspirin, the pain relieving effect is increased by a whopping 40 percent. Also, when caffeine is included in the ingredients of a headache medication, you can take a lower dose, reducing your risk of side effects such as upset stomach. Many migraine sufferers prefer to get their caffeine the old-fashioned way, however, through a strong cup of coffee, tea, or cola.

But Dr. Diamond cautions that caffeine is only an effective medication when used properly. “You can get rebound headaches if you use too much caffeine,” she explains. Basically, when you drink excessive amounts of coffee every day, your brain loses its ability to fight the headache pain on its own (the same is true when you overuse other headache medicines, such as prescription triptans). On a morning when you don’t have that jolt of java, you can wind up with a splitting headache, needing more and more caffeine each time to tame the pain.

If you suffer from migraines or tension headaches, the best way to take advantage of caffeine’s pain-fighting powers is to use it very sparingly on most days, so when you do develop a headache, it will retain the most power to soothe it.

The average American consumes 200 to 300 mg of caffeine a day (the equivalent of two to three cups of drip coffee). Dr. Diamond says that if you must have your morning java, limit yourself to one just cup, containing about 50 to 100 mg of caffeine. And beware of other sources of caffeine in your diet, including soft drinks, tea, energy drinks, and chocolate.

That way, when the pounding, throbbing headache comes on, you order up some delicious relief at your favorite coffee bar. 

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