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A headache diary can help pinpoint triggers

Last Modified: June 14, 2023

Family Medicine


Headaches are one of the most common pain-related health problems in both children and adults. As most of us know, the discomfort can be frustrating and even debilitating, depending on the intensity and duration of the episode.

Headaches can accompany other minor health problems, such as a sore throat, cold or sinus problem and, although most types of headaches usually aren't dangerous, they can still wreak havoc on your day. For some, the unpleasant sensations are routine, recurring visitors. The three most common types of headaches–tension, cluster and migraine–are typically caused by stress and emotional strain.

In this blog, we will discuss common causes of headaches and migraines and ways to care for them, as well as how to use a headache diary to discover which triggers could be causing your discomfort.

Common causes of headaches

Headaches are unpleasant on their own, but they can also bring additional symptoms, like nausea, a runny or stuffy nose, and/or sensitivity to light or noise.

Common causes of headaches may include:

  • Stress
  • Skipping meals or not getting enough to eat
  • Sleeping too much or not enough
  • Alcohol use
  • Sinus problems
  • Getting too much or too little caffeine
  • Certain foods or drinks
  • In rare cases, a headache may be a symptom of a serious illness or injury

How to use a headache diary

To help avoid headaches, it’s important to have an understanding of what brings them on, or what we would consider “headache triggers.” Maintaining a detailed list of symptoms and conditions can be a great strategy for collecting clues about the things that cause your discomfort.  

In your headache diary, you want to write down:

  • What you eat and drink.
  • What type of exercise you do and when you do it.
  • The overall state of your health.
  • What the weather is like (hot or cold, rainy, etc.).
  • Other things that might affect your headaches, such as strong feelings or stressful events.
  • When you get a headache and how bad it is.
  • What medicine you take when you get a headache, and how well it works.

The hope is that, over time, you may see a pattern tied to your headaches. For example, maybe you get a migraine after you drink wine or eat a certain food. Comparing the list of common causes above to your headache diary may help you uncover causes. It may take only a few months before you can find your headache triggers and, once you identify them, you can start taking steps to avoid them.

How can you treat your headache?

Below are a few ways to care for yourself when suffering from headaches and migraines.

  • Rest in a quiet, dark room until your headache is gone. Close your eyes and try to relax or go to sleep. Don't watch TV or read.
  • Put a cold, moist cloth or cold pack on the painful area for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. Put a thin cloth between the cold pack and your skin.
  • Use a warm, moist towel or a heating pad set on low to relax tight shoulder and neck muscles.
  • Have someone gently massage your neck and shoulders.
  • Take pain medicines exactly as directed.
  • If the doctor gave you a prescription medicine for pain, take it as prescribed.
  • If you are not taking a prescription pain medicine, ask your doctor if you can take an over-the-counter medicine.

It’s important that you never ignore new symptoms that occur with a headache, such as a fever, weakness or numbness, vision changes or confusion. These may be signs of a more serious problem. If you have any questions or concerns regarding your health, reach out to your primary care provider to discuss next steps.







Copyrighted material adapted with permission from Healthwise, Incorporated. This information does not replace the advice of a doctor.


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