Headaches from caffeine withdrawal: causes and treatment

Caffeine withdrawal headaches develop after someone who generally consumes caffeine stops using it or reduces their consumption too quickly. Caffeine consumption resolves headaches from caffeine withdrawal, but other home and over-the-counter remedies can also relieve symptoms.

Here, we look at the causes of caffeine withdrawal headaches, other symptoms and how to treat caffeine withdrawal and dependence safely.

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A person may experience headaches if they reduce caffeine intake too quickly.

Caffeine is one of the most popular psychoactive drugs in the world, present in many drinks and foods. It belongs to the class of methylxanthine stimulants that act on the central nervous system. These stimulants:

  • speed up metabolism
  • increase urine output
  • improve digestion
  • increase heart rate
  • relax smooth muscles
  • increase alertness
  • improve physical performance
  • potentially help treat some types of cancer when found in caffeine-derived compounds

However, caffeine can cause or contribute to headaches in several ways. An analysis reported that 50% of people experience a throbbing and widespread headache during caffeine withdrawal.

This is because caffeine has a vasoconstrictive effect, which means that it narrows the blood vessels and reduces blood flow. With regular caffeine consumption, blood vessels become familiar with this constriction.

Caffeine reductions can trigger a rebound effect, causing blood vessels to widen. This reaction is significant because blood vessels tend to enlarge before the onset of certain types of headache.

Caffeine also blocks adenosine receptors in the brain, which are pain modulators. Blocking these receptors can potentially decrease the spread of pain in the head.

People who consume caffeine regularly tend to develop more of these adenosine receptors, which makes them more likely to develop a headache when they stop taking caffeine.

The fastest and easiest way to relieve a headache from caffeine withdrawal is to consume caffeine.

However, people trying to reduce caffeine can use several other remedies or tricks to reduce caffeine withdrawal headaches.

Take over-the-counter pain relievers.

Available over-the-counter medications, such as ibuprofen, aspirin and acetaminophen, contain compounds that block pain signals and relieve most headaches.

That said, taking painkillers more than two or three times a week can cause a headache known as a headache from excessive medication use or a rebound headache.

Stay hydrated

Dehydration causes the brain to shrink, which can activate pain receptors in the skull. Sometimes, even mild dehydration can cause a severe headache.

Apply ice

The formation of ice in an area contracts the underlying blood vessels and slows the transmission of nerve signals.

In one study, researchers showed that applying a frozen wrap on the neck reduced pain in participants experiencing migraines.

Applying topical menthol

Menthol can numb the skin and reduce pain. Rubbing a few drops of diluted mint essential oil on the forehead or temples may be effective.

Getting enough rest

Sleep and sleep disorders are associated with many types of headache, which means that there is usually a link between sleep and headache. Getting the right amount of quality sleep every night generally reduces the headache.

However, sleeping too much or using sleeping medications too often can make headaches worse.

Acupuncture

Researchers are not sure how acupuncture relieves headache, but it can slow the transmission of pain signals and activate the brain pathways that can turn them off.

Acupressure

Acupressure is a technique based on traditional Chinese medical acupuncture therapy. It involves manipulating specific pressure points in the body, which can help reduce headaches by improving blood circulation and decreasing muscle tension.

Dietary supplements

Researchers have studied many different dietary supplements as possible treatments or preventive options for headaches. They have found only a handful of potentially positive effects:

Most supplements only work when taken regularly over time.

Anyone thinking of trying herbal supplements should talk to their doctor first, as some may interact with other medications, while others, such as butterbur, can have potentially harmful side effects.

Read more about natural remedies for headaches here.

The most common symptom of caffeine withdrawal is a headache. People who reduce their regular caffeine intake may also experience the following:

  • anxiety
  • irritability
  • difficult to focus
  • tremors or hand tremors
  • fatigue and drowsiness
  • depressed mood
  • incrise of cardiac frecuency
  • nausea and vomiting
  • high or low blood pressure
  • redness of the skin
  • constipation
  • flu-like symptoms
  • joint and abdominal pain
  • muscular stiffness

The severity and amount of symptoms someone experiences during caffeine withdrawal depends on how much they normally consume and how quickly they reduce caffeine.

In general, the more caffeine someone consumes and the faster it decreases, the more severe and wider their symptoms will be.

Even people who only drink a small cup of coffee a day for 3 days may experience withdrawal symptoms if they suddenly stop drinking coffee. It may only take 3 days of exposure to caffeine to experience withdrawal symptoms with this worsening after 7–14 days of consumption.

According to one study, most people develop withdrawal symptoms within 12 to 24 hours after caffeine reduction or reduction, and experience the most severe symptoms around 20 to 51 hours. Caffeine withdrawal symptoms may last 2 to 9 days.

People often describe caffeine withdrawal headaches as a generalized headache. The International Headache Society defines a caffeine withdrawal headache as a headache that:

  • It develops within 24 hours after the last consumption of caffeine in people who consume at least 200 milligrams (mg) of caffeine per day for more than 2 weeks
  • disappears after 7 consecutive days of not consuming caffeine
  • improvement within 1 hour of consuming 100 mg of caffeine

Doctors can also diagnose someone with a caffeine withdrawal headache if their symptoms do not match those of other types of headache.

The best way to reduce caffeine dependence is gradually, ideally, reducing caffeine intake by approximately 25% each week.

Coffee, tea or soft drinkers can find the transition to decaffeinated versions of their favorite drinks easier. People could also try mixing decaffeinated drinks with caffeine and gradually increasing the proportion of decaffeinated caffeine.

Several other lifestyle tricks and habits can also help people reduce their dependence on caffeine, such as:

  • Replace caffeinated foods and drinks with non-caffeinated alternatives
  • stay hydrated
  • get enough good quality sleep
  • exercise regularly
  • eat healthy and nutritious foods
  • practicing stress reduction techniques
  • read ingredient labels to avoid unexpected sources of caffeine, such as chocolates and sweets, and track caffeine intake

Learn more about the risks and benefits of caffeine.

Caffeine withdrawal headaches develop when people reduce their regular caffeine intake too quickly.

Headaches from caffeine withdrawal are not serious, and people can usually deal with home remedies.

People looking to reduce their dependence on caffeine should do so gradually. Reducing about 25% each week will decrease the risk of headaches due to withdrawal and other symptoms.

Practicing good health advice, such as sleeping well and staying hydrated, is another way to reduce the risk of headaches.

Talk to a doctor about headaches if they are:

  • severe, frequent or chronic
  • not simultaneous with changes in caffeine intake
  • do not stop after consuming caffeine
  • last more than a week after cutting the caffeine
  • accompanied by changes in vision, confusion, memory loss, fever or vomiting and severe nausea

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