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What could be making your head hurt?

For Canadian women, headaches are one of the most common health complaints. Here’s what you need to know about headache triggers, plus signs that you should seek medical help.

A woman at a laptop, closing her eyes and pinching the bridge of her nose

Although pinpointing the exact source of your headaches can be tricky, it’s clear that certain factors may mess with your head more than others, including ineffectively managed stress, non-routine or poor quality sleep and being a woman. In fact, migraine affects women three times more than men, and chronic headaches are more common among those with poor sleep, who are overusing medication, who have experienced childhood or young adult trauma or those who have episodic headaches that are not effectively managed.

“Sometimes people can manage migraines by making lifestyle changes such as improving sleep or reducing caffeine,” says Dr. Christine Lay, Headache Specialist and Direc­tor of the Centre for Headache, Women's College Hospital. With that in mind, here are 10 things your headache could be telling you, plus lifestyle fixes that may mitigate headache pain.

  1. POOR SLEEP
    The fix: Forgo the naps, avoid late nights and maintain consistent sleep habits.

  2. SKIPPING MEALS
    The fix: Eat at regular intervals and avoid processed foods.

  3. TOO MUCH CAFFEINE
    The fix: Be aware of your caffeine intake. Popular brands of take-out often have significantly more caffeine than soda.

  4. ARTIFICIAL FLAVOURING
    The fix: Read ingredients labels. Food with additives such as monosodium glutamate and artificial sweeteners or colours can pose a problem.

  5. MEDICATION OVERUSE
    The fix: Taking some headache medications too often can make a headache worse. Try some of these lifestyle strategies as your first line of defense and see your doctor for better medication options.

  6. ENVIRONMENTAL FACTORS
    The fix: A change in weather patterns often sets off sufferers – prepare by making sure everything else is in check, like good hydration and sleep.

  7. HORMONE FLUCTUATIONS
    The fix: Menstruation and menopause can play a role, so keep other triggers in check, especially around times of hormonal fluctuations.

  8. SCREEN TIME
    The fix: Too much is not good for your brain or your neck muscles. Avoid long stints in front of the computer or on your phone – especially before bed.

  9. DEHYDRATION
    The fix: Eight glasses a day can keep other headache triggers at bay.

  10. STRESS
    The fix: It’s a potent trigger for the vast majority of migraine sufferers. Exercise and meditation can help.

While most people get the occasional headache, dealing with persistent head pain can make it seem like your brain is turning against you. Still, it can be hard to know when to raise a red flag to your doctor.

"While it's common to experience a headache due to a cold, following a head bump or from too much alcohol, if you have a headache more than twice a month, you should consult your doctor for a proper diagnosis and appropriate treatment,” says Dr. Lay. “Most likely, someone with recurrent headaches is experiencing tension or migraine headaches, with the latter typically being more disabling. An episodic migraine headache is one that comes and goes less than 14 days per month; migraine headaches that happen more than 15 days per month are called chronic migraines. Your doctor can choose from many effective migraine therapies available, including both acute – to stop the attack – and preventive medications." Bottom line – as soon as you need to ask yourself whether you should see a doctor for head pain, it’s time to go see one.

Four ways to limit your screen time
We love our smart phones, but sometimes it’s a good idea to take a break from them and give our heads a rest.

  1. Set limits on screen time, using an app or your phone’s screen-time tracker.
  2. Take eye breaks from your computer. Go for a walk, look out a window or talk to a co-worker.
  3. Have phone-free meals. Make the table a tech-free zone for everyone (kids and grown-ups).
  4. Put your electronic devices to bed. Preferably away from your bed or, even better, somewhere other than your bedroom, at least 90 minutes before bed.

THE EXPERT

Dr. Christine Lay, headache specialist and direc­tor of the Centre for Headache, Women's College Hospital

This information is provided by Women's College Hospital and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: November 1, 2019.

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