Migraines: What Causes Them?

Aug 6, 2019

According to migrainetrust.org, migraines are one of the most common conditions in the world, impacting more people than diabetes, epilepsy and asthma combined. Migraines are also thought to impact women more than men on a 3:1 ratio, but what causes them? 

Migraines have many ‘triggers’. Trigger foods were previously thought to have a large involvement, for example chocolate, cheese and sweet foods. However there is increasing evidence that suggests rather than food being a trigger, it is more likely that the craving you have for that food is a dietary symptom of your migraine before the pain onset.

There are many physical factors that may contribute towards migraine, and along-side providing you with lifestyle advice, this is where we can really shine in helping get you back to feeling better! 

  • Muscle tension: Muscles that may become tight and can contribute towards your migraines includes the scaleni, sternocleidomastoid, trapezius and suboccipitals, these are just a few of many so make sure you see your osteopath to get a more specific diagnosis.
  • Working at computer screens: this may be postural or due to the glare so seeing a manual therapist and optometrist may benefit you with this on
  • Teeth grinding: may cause headaches through the temporomandibular joint i.e. the jaw. You can develop excessive tension in some of the muscles around this joint which can contribute to the headaches. This may also result in your jaw deviating to one side when you open it, as opposed to it opening straight, imagine this every time you chew, talk, yawn… eventually this will build up and there you have it, a headache! Your Osteopath or dentist can assess for this.  
  • Coughing: This one may be a cause of migraines, it could be diagnosed as a cough headache but it’s always best to get this one checked out by your doctor if it progresses!

There are many other triggers, and one of the largest is LACK OF FOOD or eating foods high in the Glycaemic Index creating blood sugar spikes and dips. There is evidence mounting towards using a low GI (Glycaemic Index) or GL (Glycaemic Load) diet as a way of minimising migraine onsets. 

Sleep – this could be too little, or too much, there is even research suggesting that having that lie in or snoozing may onset that pesky migraine. 

Mild dehydration can also predispose people to migraine onset. It is recommended that you should drink at least 8 x 250ml glasses of water (not including tea, coffee, and sugar free soft drinks). Many soft drinks have aspartame as a sweetener and this may be a large trigger of migraines. (Of course sugar loaded soft drinks are high on the Glycaemic Index so these should be minimised also!) 

Excessive caffeine (more than 4-5 cups of coffee or tea per day) may trigger migraines, however remember that caffeine is found in more than just tea and coffee, other foods include:

  • Ice cream and frozen yoghurt
  • Chocolate
  • Some breakfast cereal
  • Some headache remedies and PMS medication!!

Further factors include hormones, sudden excessive exercise (conversely gentle exercise may be good for them, let alone the other benefits it has), oral contraceptives and drugs. This is not a conclusive list, there are more. 

So what are the top 5 tips?

  1.  If you’ve been diagnosed with migraines, see an osteopath to see if there is any muscular, spinal or jaw involvement causing your symptoms. This could reduce your pain without changing anything else, but for an even better chance try combining with the following.
  2. Try a low GI diet, it may be worth speaking to a nutritionist or dietician before undertaking this. Also make sure you don’t skip meals!
  3. Reduce your caffeine, and not just in the tea/coffee form. As mentioned above, caffeine is in a lot more than just those. 
  4. Keep a track of your sleep – the National Sleep Foundation suggests that adults between 26 and 64 need between 7 and 9 hours, whilst those over 65 still need between 7 and 9 hours. You should stop using screens around an hour before bed and keep the bedroom for sleep – it shouldn’t be another work location. 
  5. Drink plenty of water. 



BASH: British Association for Study of Headaches. www.bash.org.uk

National Sleep Foundation. www.sleepfoundation.org

The Migraine Trust. Common triggers. www.migrainetrust.org

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