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Prone to headaches? Drink coffee. No wait, don't.

August 14, 2009 |  2:40 pm

As medical writers, we are used to penning an article one week that says oat bran prevents colon cancer and the next week that it does nothing of the kind. Such, too often, is the pendulum-swing way of studies. Not that it isn't frustrating for us as well as for readers, especially since we're prone to alter our habits -- at least for a femtosecond or two -- based on studies we cover (to say nothing of becoming convinced we've got every disease we write about).

And sometimes there are reports in which a foodstuff or habit prevents and causes something in the same study. Here's one. A study in the Journal of Headache Pain surveyed 50,483 Norwegians about their caffeine consumption and headache frequency. The scientists found that those who consumed higher amounts of caffeine reported a greater number of occasional headaches than those who consumed lower amounts of caffeine. But ("for no obvious reason," the scientists said) those who consumed less caffeine suffered more chronic headaches (headaches for 14 or more days every month).

Finally, because the study was a survey of people simply living their lives, it can't even be concluded that caffeine was the issue in the headaches. It could have been some other factor: The habit of consuming caffeine may track with other habits that people do or don't have. And foods that contain caffeine can contain other items that may also make one's head pound.

It's enough to give you a headache.

Actually, this isn't the first time scientists have reported a confusing relationship between caffeine and headaches.

Read more about that here, for example.

Here's how caffeine might help, according to the above website: "Caffeine has a range of effects on the body, one of which is the narrowing of blood vessels, which then restricts blood flow. Since blood vessels are thought to expand at the onset of headaches, it is thought that caffeine's vasoconstrictive property eases the pain of headaches and migraines. Caffeine is also believed to increase the effectiveness of many pain relievers, and is therefore added to various headache medications. It would then be logical to suggest that less pain reliever would be required to obtain the intended benefits of the medication."

And how it makes things worse: "Caffeine can, however, also cause some unpleasant feelings such as restlessness, headaches, dizziness, shaking and insomnia. In addition, caffeine stimulates the heart and raises metabolic rate. It is at higher doses that the unpleasant effects of caffeine are more likely to occur."

Withdrawal from caffeine can also cause headaches.

It's a morass.

--Rosie Mestel

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Comments (7)

More importantly, what effect does the daily consumption of caffeine have on blood pressure, given that is a vasoconstrictor?

Reading this gave me a headache. Think I'll have some coffee.

I think that once we get more knowledgeable on the human genome, we'll be able to figure out exactly what coffee does to people and their DNA. It could just be that it is good for some people and bad for others. Or maybe just too much of it (like with most things) can be bad. People say that a glass of red wine a day is good for you due to the resveratrol, but you are still putting alcohol in as well. I bet in ten to fifteen years, we'll have most of this figured out.

Headaches vary by individual and have all kinds of different triggers. I have eliminated things like wine, sugar and chocolate and avoided the headaches. Caffeine doesn't seem to affect the at all.

With all the information there is about coffee and caffeine it makes you wonder if anyone is really listening anymore. Like you said, week in and week out there seems to be one new study that tells you coffee or caffeine is good in some way or another, then the next thing you know it carries some bad.

In the end, it all boils down to having the good effects outweigh the bad, and how much is taken.

So far, coffee is one of the top if not the top beverage of choice in the world. And it seems that people who take it are okay with it.

I think this just tells you that:
1) there are different kinds of headaches
2) there are different kinds of people
3) caffeine will affect both 1 and 2 in different ways
4) topics that are not easily summed up in a news lede will be difficult to write about

I found that getting caffeine all in one go, as with coffee, caused headaches for me. Switching to the Spot-On Energy patch, which gives a low dose of caffeine continuously through the skin, gave me the good effects without the headaches (or the calories from milk and sugar).

Since I started drinking coffee, I don't get chronic (week-long) migraines. Coincidence? Maybe, but I'm not about to test it.


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