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Headache Causes: 7 Uncommon Reasons Your Head Hurts

7 Lesser-Known Headache Syndromes

How's your head? Most people will get a tension headache at one time or another. It’s by far the most common type, and stress is a major trigger, says Tesha Monteith, MD, a board-certified neurologist and assistant professor of clinical neurology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. But tension headaches are not the only game in town and stress is far from the only trigger.

Here's some other headache causes that aren't so everyday:

Ice Cream Headache

7 Unexpected Causes Of Headaches

Ice Cream Headache:

If you ate your popsicles too fast as a kid, you already know about the so-called ice cream headache. For those of you who don’t, an ice cream headache is like a mini-headache, lasting a few seconds to a few minutes. True to its name, it’s brought on by cooling of the throat and roof of the mouth from eating ice cream, drinking smoothies, or even having a cold drink. “It’s thought to be caused by problems within the brain and perhaps the trigeminal nerve, the nerve that supplies the face,” says Dr. Monteith, who notes that it tends to be more common in people who get migraines. If ice cream headache is freezing you in your tracks, you might want to pace yourself when eating these headache triggers.

Flying Headache:

Does flying give you a headache? A study presented at the 2011 International Headache Society annual meeting reported on the phenomenon of "airplane travel headache" in 63 people, two-thirds of whom were men. Their headaches, which involved severe pain, usually occurred during landing and typically lasted for about 20 minutes. Further out in the atmosphere, astronaut surveys show that some space travellers have terrible headaches in space even if they’re mostly headache-free here on Earth. “They’re more common during ascent and being out in space than during descent,” says Monteith. Space travel headaches are hard to study because so few people go into space, but Monteith says they might be related to microgravity, the spaceship’s artificial gravity, which could cause an imbalance in the body and lead to headache.

Hangover Headache:

Many of us have been there — crushed by a splitting headache the morning after a few too many. According to Monteith, hangover headache is a marker for migraine. This means if you get hangover headaches, you may be more likely to suffer from migraines. The symptoms of hangover, including headache, are probably caused by the buildup of one of alcohol’s breakdown products, Monteith says. If that’s true, there isn’t much to be done to cure or prevent hangover symptoms except drink less alcohol. For headache pain, though, you might be able to find some relief in the coffee mug. “One study suggested that caffeine blocks the alcohol-induced hypersensitivity [that causes headache], so it actually can be a good thing," Monteith says. If you’re going to drink up tonight, make sure to start tomorrow with some hot java.

Rebound Headache:

Rebound headaches can happen when you take fast-acting pain relief medications, like opiates or some migraine medications, on a regular basis. “The chronic use of fast-acting analgesics causes changes to the signal receptors in your nervous system," Monteith says. These changes cause you to need higher doses of pain medications for relief and make you more likely to suffer from headache pain as the medication wears off. There isn’t a lot to be done about this, she says, except to take a break from the medication. “In brain imaging studies, stopping the acute medication typically reversed those changes [that cause rebound headache pain],” Monteith explains.

Arthritis Headache:

An arthritis headache, also known as a cervicogenic headache, is headache pain behind the eye that’s coming from the nerves in the neck. It’s thought to be caused by arthritis in the neck, but according to Monteith, that might not be the whole story. “Upper cervical [neck] nerves are associated with migraine, so patients can have pain in the neck,” she says. The link between neck pain and headache might be reversed. “Many patients we think have cervicogenic [arthritis] headache may actually have migraine," she says. In other words, the arthritis headache, or headache from neck pain, might really be neck pain caused by migraine.

Caffeine-Withdrawal Headache:

For some of us, skipping the afternoon coffee can make the back end of the day tough to bear. If you’re getting a headache to boot, it’s far from coincidental. According to Monteith, caffeine withdrawal has been proved to cause headaches. The mechanism has been tested too, but there isn't a solid explanation for what’s causing the headache. Monteith says there’s probably a connection to a signalling chemical in the body called adenosine because caffeine blocks adenosine receptors, which are part of the chemical signalling pathway.

Hot Dog Headache:

A hot dog headache sounds funny, but the nitrites (preservatives) used in hot dogs and other processed meats can bring on headache pain, says Monteith. “These nitrous compounds are actually used as experimental models for migraine,” she explains. Experts used to think these culprits were headache triggers because they widened blood vessels and let more blood into the head. More blood in the head, they thought, meant more pressure and pain. But according to Monteith, blood vessels don’t change during migraine. The latest explanation for hot dog headache is that the brain stem becomes more active when these compounds are present, and that somehow this leads to migraine symptoms like headache pain.

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