If a cup of coffee is your go-to remedy for a pesky headache, here’s some confusing news: You may or may not be making your headache worse.
According to experts, caffeine can both relieve and worsen a headache; the outcome depends on multiple factors specific to you and your habits. So before you head to the vending machine for a cola to numb the pain, there are a few things you should consider. Here’s what you should know:
“To be clear, caffeine does not always help headaches,” said Kirsten Ransbury, lead registered dietitian at Kaiser Permanente in Roseville, California.
For headaches caused by swelling of blood vessels in the brain ― a condition known as vasodilation ― caffeine may help by causing the blood vessels to constrict, reducing the swelling. Caffeine might also help soften tension headaches by relaxing the tense muscles over the scalp or the back of the head, explained Kiran F. Rajneesh, director of the neurological pain division at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
But here’s where it gets a little tricky: If you have too much caffeine, your tense muscles could get tenser, Rajneesh said, which would worsen the pain.
There’s no magic dose
As nice as it would be to know exactly how much caffeine you’d need to kill a headache, there’s no one-size-fits-all prescription. This is in part because caffeine affects everybody differently.
“Some people are more genetically predisposed to be sensitive to caffeine,” Rajneesh said, and these folks should probably refrain from using caffeine as a pain reliever.
When it comes to coffee, Rajneesh said, “usually one or two cups” is enough in terms of daily consumption, and three to four cups should probably be the cutoff. So if you’ve already consumed your morning cup(s), caffeine may not be the best headache-soothing option.
The source of caffeine slightly matters
Coffee, tea, chocolate and soda are some of the most common sources of caffeine. Ransbury said any of those sources shouldn’t make a difference, though she suggested using particular caution when it comes to energy drinks, since ingesting too much has been associated with dizziness, seizures and strokes.
Rajneesh advised against energy drinks completely because many contain “neurostimulants that can worsen your headaches.” When it comes to treating patients with migraines, Rajneesh said, energy drinks are off the table.
Something to consider is the amount of caffeine in the source. Ransbury said coffee has about 106 to 164 milligrams of caffeine per 5-ounce cup, while a 12-ounce can of caffeinated soda contains 38 to 46 milligrams.
“I think out of all of them, coffee is probably the most benign,” Rajneesh added, noting that soda contains sugar and chemicals, variables that could have an effect on your well-being (and headaches).
The best headache remedy depends on the individual
Some people swear by ibuprofen and a nap, while others find putting a cold compress over their eyes for a few minutes does the trick when it comes to headache treatment.
The theme of this? Everyone is different, and different kinds of headaches will respond best to different kinds of treatment. Rajneesh said he would most likely first pick caffeine in the form of coffee over an over-the-counter medication because he considers coffee the “more natural” option.
When advising patients, he said he first recommends what he calls a “lifestyle modification,” which includes adjusting your sleep schedule, maintaining hydration and incorporating a moderate amount of exercise into your routine. Before considering medication, Rajneesh said it’s important to attempt to figure out what in a person’s life could be causing headaches and make changes from there. Lack of sleep, a healthy diet and exercise can all contribute to feeling out of balance, which includes headaches, he said.
There are, of course, quicker ways to abate headache pain. Ransbury suggested many caffeine-free and natural remedies, including turning off the lights, relaxing in a quiet space and taking a warm bath. She also said avoiding heavy meals, alcohol, nicotine, excessive screen time and ― surprise ― even too much caffeine may also be enough to ease the pain.
“Living With” is a guide to navigating conditions that affect your mind and body. Each month, HuffPost Life will tackle very real issues people live with by offering different stories, advice and ways to connect with others who understand what it’s like. In April, we’re covering migraines and headaches.