Does Caffeine Help or Cause Headaches?

People react to caffeine differently, so it helps some but hurts others

Does caffeine help headaches? It depends. After drinking coffee, some people get a headache, while others use caffeine to treat migraines.

Scientists don’t quite know why caffeine helps headaches in some people but makes them worse in others. Keeping track of your own experience can help you understand whether caffeine triggers a headache or enables you to find relief. 

Keep reading to learn more about caffeine and headaches, including caffeine’s effect on the brain, how to get rid of a caffeine headache, and how to reduce your caffeine intake without feeling any pain. 

Mature woman with headache at home

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Theories on How Caffeine Affects the Brain

Caffeine is a chemical found in natural and synthetic (artificial) forms. Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system (CNS), which is why many people feel energized after a cup of coffee. Since your brain and spine are part of the CNS, caffeine can impact your brain. 

Headaches occur when nerves in the head, neck, or face become irritated. They send signals to the brain when this happens, resulting in that familiar head pain.

Can Caffeine Help Headaches?

Some people find that caffeine can help when suffering from a headache, particularly a migraine. Healthcare providers aren’t entirely sure why caffeine can help headaches for some people, but there are theories. 

Adenosine is a substance found in the brain that prompts the relaxation of blood vessels. Adenosine has been linked to migraines, but caffeine can block the receptors that adenosine usually binds to, stopping it from taking effect. At the same time, caffeine causes the constriction of blood vessels, which may help by decreasing blood flow to the brain during a headache.

Added Relief From Medication

Caffeine is a common ingredient in headache medications. The chemical is included because it can help the body absorb the medications more efficiently. However, the caffeine itself may also help. One study found that over-the-counter (OTC, without a prescription) pain medications not containing caffeine were more effective for headache relief when they were given along with 130 milligrams of caffeine. 

Recommended Daily Caffeine Amount 

To use caffeine to help your headache, you must make sure you’re not getting too much. Most people can consume up to 400 milligrams of caffeine—the amount in two to three 8-ounce cups of coffee—without any ill health effects.

People with occasional migraines should limit their caffeine consumption to 200 milligrams. People with daily headaches should try to avoid caffeine altogether.

When Is Caffeine a Trigger? 

Many people with migraines report that caffeine is a migraine trigger that can cause headaches. Healthcare providers don’t know exactly why this happens, but it may have to do with the way caffeine causes the blood vessels to constrict or how it impacts the nervous system and perceptions of pain.

Withdrawal Symptoms 

You may experience a caffeine withdrawal headache if you suddenly stop drinking caffeine. About half of people who consume 200 milligrams of caffeine each day will experience headaches if they stop drinking caffeine. Healthcare providers aren’t sure exactly why caffeine withdrawal occurs, but they believe it has to do with the body becoming accustomed to caffeine. 

How to Gradually Decrease Caffeine Intake 

If you want to avoid caffeine withdrawal, it’s best to decrease your caffeine intake gradually. The safest way is to reduce your caffeine consumption by about 25% each week until you’re at the point you’re comfortable with. If you decide to stop all at once, you might experience headaches, drowsiness, and irritability, but those will resolve within a few days.

Caffeine Alternatives 

Most people get caffeine from coffee, tea, soda, and energy drinks. Replacing these with caffeine-free beverages can help you reduce your intake. Alternatives to caffeinated drinks include:

  • Herbal teas, which are naturally caffeine-free
  • Decaf coffee, which has at least 75% of the caffeine removed
  • Soda water or seltzer
  • Decaffeinated cola or other soda without caffeine

Integrated Treatment For Chronic Headaches

Treating headaches can be complicated. Unfortunately, what works for one person may not work for other people, and it will likely take some trial and error before you find a solution that works well for you. 

It's best to take an integrated approach to get the best results for headache relief. An integrated approach means trying lifestyle adjustments like changing the amount of caffeine you drink, managing stress, taking medications, and exploring alternative medicine like meditation and yoga. 

Don’t use OTC pain medications to treat headaches more than a few times a week since overuse can cause rebound headaches and make your symptoms worse. 

Summary

If you have chronic headaches, caffeine may help. For other people, though, caffeine is a trigger that can cause headaches. Caffeine headaches can also occur when you decrease the caffeine you consume. Tracking your symptoms and reactions to caffeine can help you determine whether caffeine might help or hurt when you have a headache. 

A Word From Verywell

Headaches are common but can be painful. If you have chronic headaches, work with a healthcare provider to develop a treatment plan that works for you. As part of that plan, ask your healthcare provider for their recommendation on caffeine consumption and whether you should change the amount of caffeine you drink. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Should you use caffeine for migraines before or after symptoms start?

    After. Some people get relief from migraines by consuming caffeine when they are experiencing symptoms.

  • How much caffeine do you need to stop headache pain?

    This will depend on how sensitive you are to caffeine. One study found that a 130 milligram dose of caffeine—about the amount found in a 12 ounce cup of coffee—can make over-the-counter pain medications more effective for people with headaches.

  • What helps with caffeine headaches?

    Consuming a small amount of caffeine—as little as 25 mg—can alleviate a caffeine headache. Alternatively, OTC pain medications may help with occasional caffeine headaches. Reducing your caffeine consumption slowly can help prevent symptoms.  

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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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