What’s Causing Your Headache?

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Five surprising triggers–and cures for the pain.

About 80 percent of women in this country suffer from headaches. And something as seemingly innocent as chewing gum can bring the throb, explains larry C. newman, M.D., director of the Headache Institute at st. Luke’s–Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. Whether you suffer from migraines or tension headaches, read on for smart ways to threat and prevent them.

Your local forecast
April showers bring… April headaches? It’s true: Springtime storms and changing weather triggered pain in 83 percent of migraine sufferes, according to a study from the mayo clinic in Scottsdale, AZ. Experts speculate that changes in barometric pressure play a role, though it’s not yet known how they affect your brain and make your noggin throb.

What to do: Sign up to recieve weather alerts at weather.com. When the forecast looks lousy, pop a painkiller, suck as acetamonophen, as a preventive fix.

Your bedtime routine
If you watch TV or read to “unwind” before bed, maybe you shouldn’t. Some 80 percent women with chronic migranes end the day this way, research shows.These activities stimulate brain wave activity, making it harder to sleep, says Anne H. Cahoun, M.D., a clinical associate professor of neurology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. You’re conditioning the brain to remain awake, she says, so you maybe waking during the night without knowing it–and disrupted sleep associated with headache frequency.

What to do:
Skip (or TiVo) Letterman, turn in at the same time everynight, and don’t eat for four hours before bed. Migraine sufferers who learned how to change their bedtime habits had a 40 percent overall improvement in headache frequency and intensity, a recent study found.

Your pain medicine
An estimated 80 percent of people who seek medical help for daily headaches can blame their pain on the very medicines they take to tame it. “Medication-overuse headaches” can occur when you take over-the-counter pain relievers or prescription anti-migraine medications known as triptans (like Imitrex or Zomig) more than twice a week. Experts suspect that these drugs, when uvoerused for several months, heightened headache sensitivity by interfering with pain regulators in the brain.

What to do: Change your meds. Migraine sufferers who stop taking their triptans or other pain relievers for two months had a 67 percent reduction in headaches, according to one study. To get through the withdrawal period, ask your doctor about daily headache-preventive prescription medicines, which don’t cause boomerang headaches. Your doctor may keep you on these pills for a few weeks, until your pain subsides, or indefinitely, if you continue to need meds for headache relief.

Your hormones
Sixty percent of women who suffer from migraines have more frequent and intense pain before menstruation, and those who get tension headaches are more likely to have them around that time of the month, says Elizabeth W. Loder, M.D., chief of the headache and pain division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.The drop in the hormne estrogen right before your period may correspond with changes in sensitivity to brain chemicals that help regulate pain, causing your headache.

What to do: If you’re on the Pill, talk to your doctor about taking it continously, skipping the placebo days to avoid a monthy estrogen withdrawal. Women who did this had fewer and less-severe headaches within a month, according to a recent study. Non-Pill users can take painkillers such as medicine, like Amerge or Frova, for five days, starting two days before your flow begins. Or treat yourself to a massage, which can reduce headache frequency.

Your (artificial) sweet tooth
Downing foods or drinks that contain aspartame may set off the release of brain chemicals that cause blood vessels to sweell, leading to head pain, research shows. Sucralose (Splenda) also may cause headaches in some women, preliminary reports indicate.

What to do: Cut out foods that contain these chemicals. Aspartame (also marketed as Equal and NutraSweet) is a common ingredient in flavored water, fat-free yogurt, diet soda, low-calorie ice cream, and even chewable vitamins
and gum that aren’t necessarily touted as “sugar-free.”

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