Author: Zia Sherrell
For some people, caffeine consumption can trigger migraine symptoms. However, others may find it helps ease their pain, especially in combination with other medications. Scientists are not sure why people have different reactions.
Caffeine is a stimulant present in many beverages and foods, including coffee, tea, and chocolate. Many people consume it without any problems, but for those with migraine, it could be helpful or harmful.
Whether a person finds caffeine beneficial for their migraine symptoms depends on their individual response to the substance.
This article discusses the relationship between headaches, migraine, and caffeine and how caffeine use might help or hinder these conditions.
Caffeine helps some people with migraine, but not everyone. Some individuals may find that the substance helps relieve their symptoms, while others find it triggers or worsens them.
Before a migraine attack, the body’s blood vessels can dilate. Previously, scientists thought this was what caused migraine pain. Caffeine constricts blood vessels, which may explain why it helps reduce pain for some people.
However, the role of vasodilation in migraine is unclear. Scientists now know migraine is a neurological condition and are still learning about the mechanisms that cause it.
Caffeine can also increase the effectiveness of other pain medications by as much as 40%.
Yes, caffeine itself could act as a trigger for migraine. Research suggests that coffee is a migraine trigger for between 6.3% and 14.5% of people. In those with a sensitivity to caffeine, the substance may also increase the intensity of headaches and make them last longer.
Yes, caffeine withdrawal can also trigger migraine episodes.
With regular caffeine consumption, the brain can develop a tolerance. If a person’s brain comes to expect a certain dose of caffeine and the amount the individual consumes drops, the person may experience caffeine withdrawal.
Symptoms of caffeine withdrawal include symptoms similar to migraine, such as:
- trouble concentrating
Experts do not fully understand the mechanisms of caffeine on the brain, but they know some of its specific targets.
Caffeine affects a chemical in the brain known as adenosine. Levels of this chemical increase during migraine attacks.
Adenosine sticks to receptors on brain cells, lowering electrical activity and widening blood vessels. Caffeine blocks these receptors and stops their effects, which may be how it helps relieve pain for some people.
However, in those who regularly consume caffeine, the substance has reduced effects on brain activity and blood vessel size. Regular and extended caffeine use may change the numbers and functions of adenosine receptors, contributing to caffeine tolerance and reducing its effects on migraine symptoms.
The only way to know for sure if caffeine helps or triggers migraine symptoms is to test it out. People can do this in several ways:
- Test caffeine during an episode: People who consume caffeine infrequently may benefit from trying it alone or combining it with pain medication during an episode.
- Keeping a diary: People who consume caffeine more regularly may find it helps keep a symptom diary. For this option, they should record when they consume caffeine and when they experience symptoms. If there is a pattern, caffeine may be a trigger.
- Reducing caffeine intake: Steadily reducing caffeine intake may allow someone to see if they experience migraine due to caffeine withdrawal or whether their symptoms improve without caffeine consumption.
If someone suspects caffeine triggers migraine symptoms, they should speak with a doctor. They may help devise a plan to help individuals wean off caffeine and avoid potential withdrawal symptoms.
The American Headache Society’s 2021 guidelines state that people with migraine can take over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications for mild or moderate migraine pain. This includes pain medications with added caffeine, such as Excedrin, which contains acetaminophen, aspirin, and caffeine.
An individual may take medications containing caffeine at the first sign of a migraine. However, it is important to speak with a doctor about the symptoms, particularly if someone does not yet have an official diagnosis of migraine. The symptoms of migraine can be similar to more serious conditions that require medical attention.
A doctor can also advise on how best to use medications for migraine to avoid medication overuse headaches, or rebound headaches.
For symptoms that do not respond to these OTC options, a doctor can prescribe migraine-specific treatments, such as triptans.
If a person wants to know more about caffeine and migraine or whether caffeine medications might help their symptoms, they can consult a doctor. Some potential questions to ask include:
- Which migraine medications are suitable for me?
- Could caffeine help?
- How much caffeine is beneficial?
- What are the possible side effects?
- Could caffeine-containing pain medications interact with other drugs?
- How can I avoid caffeine withdrawal symptoms?
Caffeine is an ingredient in some pain medications that people can use for migraine. It may help relieve pain for some individuals. However, others may find that caffeine consumption, or caffeine withdrawal, triggers migraine episodes.
If a person suspects that caffeine may be a factor in their migraine headaches, they should keep a migraine diary to track their intake and symptoms. Alternatively, they could try weaning off the substance to see if it helps.
If a person wants to try caffeine medications for migraine for the first time, they should first speak with a doctor or pharmacist. Individuals should follow the directions on drug labels and be aware of possible side effects and interactions with other medications.