The top 5 headache myths debunked

From triggers to treatment, here are some of the biggest misconceptions about headaches, including why your tension headache may actually be a migraine.
By Kristen Vinakmens
tension headache Photo, Zen Shui Photography/Veer

You’ve probably endured your fair share of head-throbbing sessions and might think you’re something of an expert on headaches. But it turns out a cup of coffee might help relieve headache pain —  and what you always thought was a tension headache might actually be a migraine. Here are five common headache myths debunked by the experts.

Myth #1 Severe head pain always signals a migraine The reality: “Worldwide, tension headaches are the most common type of headache, but they’re rarely disabling,” says Dr. Christine Lay, director of the Centre for Headache at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. While tension headaches can feel very severe at times, they’re usually short-lived and still allow you to go about your day. If a throbbing head makes you feel like you can’t perform at work, and you have other symptoms like nausea, loss of appetite and aura, that’s when it’s most likely a migraine, Lay says.

Myth #2 Drugs are the only way to prevent headaches The reality: Some supplements, such as magnesium and riboflavin, have shown promise in preventing migraine attacks. In 2012, the American Headache Society and the American Academy of Neurology reviewed studies on medications used in migraine treatment and those three supplements were deemed “probably effective” in warding off migraine attacks. That said, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach; and before taking any medicine, you should always consult a health care practitioner. “You can take any supplement in a dangerous dosage,” says Dr. Maggie Patillo, a Halifax-based naturopathic doctor.

Myth #3 Pain near your nose is just your sinuses The reality: Feeling pain on both sides of your head and across the bridge of the nose might lead you to think it’s a sinus headache, but it’s most likely a migraine, says Lay. “Migraines quite commonly can be a bilateral or two-sided headache,” she says. Weather changes can mess with our heads: Upwards of 60 percent of migraine patients have weather-triggered headaches. A 2009 study published in the journal Neurology found that a temperature change of as little as five degrees can trigger a headache.

Myth #4 Taking medication prevents headaches from happening The reality: You reach for an ibuprofen at the first sign of a headache, and then again when you feel like you might get one later on in the day. If you’re relying on over-the-counter pain medications twice a week or more, on a regular basis, this can cause overuse headaches. “Use the medicine when you actually have a headache, rather than pre-emptively,” says Lay.

Myth #5 Caffeine (or the lack of it) causes headaches The reality: It’s not necessarily your morning cup of joe that’s the culprit, but the misuse of caffeinated drinks that can lead to headaches. “People drink inconsistent amounts of caffeine, which can lead to caffeine-withdrawal headaches,” says Patillo. Another factor: Too much coffee can mess with your sleep cycle, and a disturbed sleep cycle can lead to a sleep-deprivation headache. “Caffeine isn’t a pure headache trigger,” says Lay. “In some patients, a strong cup of coffee can help calm down a headache.”




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