Can I first just say that migraines and headaches are the f*cking worst?! Like, you wake up ready to get shit done and BAM! your brain is throbbing and you can no longer be a human.
When that shit strikes, it makes sense that many of us (read: all of us) are looking to find the quickest solution and wind up in a Google hole of "Does caffeine help migraine and headaches?" So here we are.
Annoyingly, the answer to this Q is: It's complicated.
Medications made to target PMS and migraine-related pain, like Midol and Excedrin, happen to be loaded with caffeine. But it's pretty common knowledge that caffeine is also associated with headaches. So, uh, what the hell is up?
Caffeine and headaches
Apparently, caffeine was used to treat headaches and migraines back in ye olden days when there weren't any treatments that targeted them, says Adelene Jann, M.D., a neurologist at NYU Langone’s Division of Headache.
Though caffeine's role in treating a headache is still debated, many medications include it because it's been shown to decrease pain in general.
Here's how that works. The chemical structure of caffeine is similar to the molecule in the body called adenosine, which promotes pain signals in the brain during a migraine, says Dr. Jann. But when you consume caffeine, it can bind to adenosine receptors and block that pain-inducing signal response.
Caffeine also speeds up the absorption of nutrients in your small intestine, so when you take it with another medication like Tylenol, it might get to work faster.
Caffeine and migraines
But, Dr. Jann says, using too much caffeine can lead to more headaches and migraines. "If you use drugs like Excedrin more than three days in a week consistently, it will lead to more chronic migraines down the line." You might even start dealing with chronic daily headaches, or medication-overuse headaches and migraines.
Of course, you can also get caffeine withdrawal headaches, like the ones you get if you skip your regular cup of coffee, and those can trigger migraines too. In general, Dr. Jann recommends drinking no more than two cups of coffee a day and keeping an eye on other sources of caffeine that you might be consuming.
"Caffeine and drugs like Excedrin are most patients' go-to treatments because it's available over the counter," says Dr. Jann. But it’s helpful to know that there are specific migraine treatments that you can talk to your doctor about too.
Doctors believe that migraines are a genetic disorder and can be triggered by hormonal changes, especially in women (they may be worse when you’re on your period and improve after menopause).
If you have a family history of migraines, your brain may be sensitive to specific triggers, says Dr. Jann. Those triggers can set off a slow wave of electrical activity that starts in the back of the brain and move toward the front, activating a nerve that sends signals that cause pain.
Before you set out to find a non-caffeine treatment for your migraines, you'll need to figure whether your headache is actually a migraine. Here's how to tell, per Dr. Jann.
- You've had at least five migraines in your life, lasting from four hours to three days.
- Your headaches are (must have at least two of these) one-sided, throbbing, pounding, moderate to severe, and interfere with your day
- You have light and/or sound sensitivity
- You have nausea or vomiting
In the past year, the Food and Drug Administration has approved three new drugs to treat acute migraine pain, Ubrelvy, Nurtec, and Reyvow. Ubrelvy and Nurtec target a molecule in the brain called CGRP and Reyvow targets serotonin receptors. And, in 2018 the FDA approved a new class of medications to prevent migraines from occurring in the first place. "We definitely have broadened the treatment arsenal for migraine just within the past year," says Dr. Jann.
Talk to your doctor if you think one of these medications might work for you.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.