Why Acid Reflux Headaches Happen and What You Can Do

Having acid reflux and having a headache or migraine can leave you feeling miserable. You might think that’s where the connection ends, but research has shown a strong correlation between gastrointestinal disorders and headaches.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a condition in which the lower esophageal sphincter doesn’t close properly, which allows stomach acid to enter the esophagus, causing heartburn and regurgitation.

Migraine is a neurological condition whose primary symptom is four or more severe headaches a month. 

Although a connection between gastric health and headaches has been recorded in medical literature since the late 1800s, scientists are just starting to reexamine this link.

Research has shown that GERD is common among people with migraines, suggesting that migraine sufferers might be predisposed to GERD. People with more prevalent headaches report having more reflux than people without headaches.

In addition, some research shows that treating acid reflux and GERD can help reduce the number of headaches people experience, especially for the 22% of migraine sufferers who have also been diagnosed with GERD.

Better understanding the causes of acid reflux headaches can help you alleviate symptoms. Learn more in this article.

person with headache

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Why Acid Reflux Headaches Happen

Scientists are still working to understand the precise cause of acid reflux headaches. However, it’s believed that headaches and GERD are linked by way of the gut-brain axis. Research shows that the gut and the brain communicate with each other through the central nervous system, endocrine system, and immune system. Critical neurotransmitters, like serotonin, are found in both the brain and the gut. 

Anytime there is a disturbance in the brain or the gut, communication between the two regions can be disrupted. In that way, a condition like GERD can contribute to headaches, and headaches can also contribute to gastrointestinal distress. 

Causes of GERD

Research has found that treating GERD can help reduce the number of headaches that people have. In order to reduce the acid reflux headaches that you experience, it’s helpful to understand the causes of GERD

The underlying cause of GERD is a relaxed lower esophageal sphincter. This is a structural issue, but it can be made worse by certain lifestyle factors, including:

  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Eating certain foods, including greasy and high-fat foods

GERD and NSAIDs

It’s important for people who have both GERD and headaches to educate themselves about the connection between the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and the development of GERD.

NSAIDs—which include the common pain-relieving medications aspirin, Advil (ibuprofen), and Aleve (naproxen)—can increase the severity of GERD symptoms and lead to the development of GERD in people who have not previously had it.

If you have headaches, you should speak with a healthcare provider about controlling them while minimizing your use of NSAIDs.

Treatment

There are no treatments that are specific to acid reflux headaches. However, research indicates that controlling both headaches and GERD can help alleviate symptoms of these conditions.

Talk with your healthcare provider about a comprehensive approach to treatment that addresses both headaches and GERD. 

Headache Medicine

If you have frequent headaches, particularly migraines, you should talk with your healthcare provider about treatments that can help. This might include prescription medications to prevent migraines or lessen their severity when they start. Prescription medications used to treat migraines include:

  • Triptans: This class of medications acts on serotonin receptors to relieve migraines. 
  • Ergot derivatives: These medications help blood vessels constrict, which can alleviate migraine symptoms.
  • Steroids: Steroids can interfere with a migraine’s progression or keep it from happening in the first place. 
  • CGRP antagonists: These medications include Aimovig (erenumab-aooe), Ubrelvy (ubrogepant), and Nurtec ODT (rimegepant), which work as gene-related peptide receptor (CGRP) antagonists to prevent or block pain once it's started.

Remember to exercise caution with over-the-counter (OTC) medications like NSAIDs to treat frequent headaches. Not only can these exacerbate GERD symptoms, but they can also lead to rebound headaches—symptoms that emerge more strongly when the medications wear off. 

Acid-Controlling Medicine

Taking medications to control GERD can also help reduce the number of headaches that you experience. There are OTC and prescription medications that can be used to treat GERD. These include: 

  • Antacids: These OTC drugs neutralize stomach acid.
  • Proton pump inhibitors: These medications, which are available over the counter and by prescription, block the production of stomach acid. 
  • Histamine blockers: These medications are used to treat GERD in some cases, although some histamine blockers like Zantac have been recalled. Be sure to talk with your doctor before using these. 

Reglan

One medication option that is often a good fit for people with acid reflux headaches is Reglan (metoclopramide).

Reglan is used to treat stomach and gastrointestinal issues, including GERD. It is also used, independent of that, to treat migraines, particularly during pregnancy. Talk to your healthcare provider about whether Reglan might be helpful to treat your GERD and headaches.  

Lifestyle Changes

Making simple lifestyle changes can reduce the amount of GERD symptoms that you experience. In turn, that can help you avoid acid reflux headaches. 

Weight Loss

Although weight loss is difficult to obtain, it’s also one of the most effective ways to reduce the symptoms of GERD for people who are overweight.

Modify Your Diet

Certain foods can make the symptoms of GERD worse. Avoiding these can help reduce symptoms. If you have GERD you should avoid the following:

  • Caffeine, which can increase the amount of stomach acid you produce
  • Fatty foods, alcohol, and peppermint, all of which increase pressure on the lower esophageal sphincter
  • Acidic foods, which include coffee and alcohol and can change the movement of your intestinal tract

Elevate Your Head at Night

If you have GERD, use gravity to your advantage for keeping stomach acid down. Avoid lying down after eating, and elevate your head at night to reduce symptoms.

Eliminate Nicotine

Smoking is a risk factor for GERD.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

GERD and headaches are both conditions that can interfere with your life. It’s important to manage both conditions by seeking medical attention. A healthcare provider can help you determine what treatments and lifestyle changes will be most effective for you. 

Having GERD can increase your risk of esophageal cancer. This type of cancer often doesn’t have symptoms initially, so it’s a good idea to see your healthcare provider regularly to be on the safe side.

If you start to experience signs of esophageal cancer—like trouble swallowing or hoarseness—reach out to your healthcare provder immediately. 

Frequently Asked Questions:

What headache medications can I take with acid reflux?

Speak with your doctor about what headache medications are best to take if you have acid reflux. People with GERD should avoid NSAIDs since these medications can make the symptoms of acid reflux worse.

Why do I have a headache and acid reflux every day?

Headache and acid reflux are related conditions. Since the brain and the gut are linked through the gut-brain axis, anything that occurs in the brain or the gut can affect the other area. In addition, NSAIDs, medications that are commonly used to treat headaches, can make acid reflux worse. If you have a headache and acid reflux every day, you should speak with a doctor. 

How do you relieve an acid reflux headache?

Taking steps to reduce the symptoms of GERD can help relieve an acid reflux headache. Losing weight, avoiding alcohol and caffeine, and elevating your head at night can all reduce acid reflux and may help with acid reflux headaches. 

A Word From Verywell

The ways in which GERD and headaches are intertwined is complex. Since both these conditions can have a big impact on your daily life, you should seek medical treatment to help cope with them. A doctor will guide you in finding the medications and lifestyle changes that can help alleviate your acid reflux headaches.

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5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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