Does Caffeine Help — or Cause — Headaches?

A cup of coffee could either provide much-needed pain relief — or trigger intense head throbbing. Here, experts break down the link between caffeine and headaches.

Woman drinking a cup of coffee and holding her head in pain
Photo: Getty Images

Any coffee drinker or tea enthusiast knows first-hand that caffeine can have some feel-good effects on your body. It quickly lifts your energy levels when you're barely able to keep your eyes open, keeps you alert when you'd otherwise be bored to tears, and even improves your feelings of well-being, according to the American Psychological Association.

But does "headache reliever" belong on the laundry list of caffeine benefits? In some cases, it very well could be. Here, neurologists spell out the link between caffeine and headaches and answer whether caffeine can help relieve — or trigger — those aches and pains.

Can Caffeine Help Headaches?

First things first, a quick bio lesson on the mechanics of a headache. Simply put, headaches occur when the pain-sensitive nerve endings on the lining of the brain, called nociceptors, are overstimulated, says Wade Cooper, D.O., a neurologist and the director of the Headache and Neuropathic Pain Clinic at University of Michigan Health. Stress, certain foods, particular odors, and medications can all trigger this overstimulation, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). Then, these nerve endings send messages to the brain's thalamus (aka the brain's "relay station" for pain sensation), which sends signals to other parts of the brain that manage pain awareness and your emotional response to it, per the NINDS. The result: A painful, dull headache.

During a migraine, this overstimulation is even more severe, and your nervous system is also affected, says Dr. Cooper. "A migraine [causes] what we call an enhanced nervous system, where suddenly your ability to interpret light, sound, smell, touch, all becomes supersonic," he explains. As such, you might experience nausea, vomiting, and increased sensitivity to light, noise, and odors, along with head pain, while suffering a migraine attack, according to the NINDS.

With both types of headaches, "when those nerves become overly sensitive, it triggers this vasodilation — this expansion of blood vessels on the surface of the brain too," says Dr. Cooper. And that's where caffeine comes into play. ICYDK, caffeine is a stimulant that naturally occurs in more than 60 plants, according to the National Library of Medicine. In individuals who rarely consume it, caffeine has vasoconstrictive properties, meaning it narrows blood vessels by constricting the small muscles in their walls, says Dr. Cooper. Translation: Caffeine can help counteract the swelling of blood vessels occurring during your headache and, in turn, ease your pain.

On the same token, caffeine blocks your brain's receptors for the neuromodulator adenosine, which slows down neural activity and makes you feel sleepy when it binds to its receptors, research shows.Those two effects combined are "why if someone drinks caffeine and they're not used to it, they sometimes get a boost of energy, sometimes their mood gets a bit better, and they get that blood-vessel shrinkage, so it actually can improve someone's headache," says Dr. Cooper.

Since caffeine is quickly absorbed by the gut, it can start providing headache relief in as little as 15 to 20 minutes, and you're best off consuming 50 to 100 milligrams of caffeine to notice an improvement in symptoms, says Dr. Cooper. In comparison, an 8-ounce cup of coffee has 80 to 100 milligrams of caffeine, while the same amount of black or green tea contains 30 to 50 milligrams, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Combining caffeine with pain-relief medications may also help ease symptoms, says MaryAnn Mays, M.D., a neurologist at the Cleveland Clinic's Neurological Institute's Center for Headache and Pain. The over-the-counter drug Excedrin, for example, uses a blend of aspirin, acetaminophen, and 65 milligrams of caffeine to soothe headaches and migraines. "It's working on different mechanisms of the headache — you have the analgesic of acetaminophen, you have the anti-inflammatory of aspirin, and then the caffeine," she explains. "And so that's why some patients may feel that it does work great." And research backs up this potential benefit: The combination of acetaminophen, aspirin, and caffeine has "strong evidence of effectiveness" and can be used as a first-line treatment for migraines, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians.

TL;DR: "If someone's not used to using caffeine at all and they've got a headache, I think using a caffeine-containing product or drinking a cup of coffee is a great idea [for relief]," says Dr. Cooper. Still, it's not a guarantee that caffeine will help your headaches, especially if you consume it daily. "If someone's covered with caffeine all the time, their body becomes immune to it," he explains. "It's so used to having that caffeine effect in the rest of the body that it loses its potential benefit. It's almost like having that caffeine around is the baseline, so you don't get a boost of those chemicals that help you feel better."

Can Caffeine Cause Headaches?

If you consistently drink more than two regular-sized caffeinated beverages (about 200 milligrams of caffeine) a day, however, you may run into trouble when you don't get your fix, says Dr. Mays. "If you do that on a regular basis and then all of a sudden stop it, the withdrawal from the caffeine can actually trigger a migraine," she explains. This headache can occur within just 24 hours after your last caffeine intake and can last up to seven days if you don't get a hit of the chemical, according to research published in the journal Nutrients. The higher your baseline level of caffeine, the higher the chances you'll suffer a withdrawal headache, per the journal.

The reason: "If your body gets so used to having caffeine around every single day and you stop having caffeine around, then those blood vessels get engorged and irritated," says Dr. Cooper. In turn, you're left with a throbbing headache that can only be soothed with a cup of Joe. "If someone is used to drinking three Monster drinks a day and then they get stranded on a desert island for a week and a half, they're going to have a pretty intense headache," he jokes.

Plus, people who are prone to headaches are generally advised to completely avoid caffeine, says Dr. Cooper, as sudden withdrawal has the potential to trigger migraine attacks in these folks, according to the Nutrients research. "If you're someone who's prone to have a lot of headache burden, someone like me is going to say, 'I want you to stop caffeine altogether to try and reset your nervous system so that you don't have that complicating your headache recovery,'" he adds.

The Takeaway On Caffeine and Headaches

For folks who are occasional caffeine users and have fewer than three headaches a month, sipping on a cup of coffee or combining the java with an over-the-counter pain-relief medication can generally be a safe and effective treatment for headaches, says Dr. Cooper. "But if someone is an every-single-day caffeine user, then the caffeine's going to do nothing to help their headache," he adds. And in these individuals, skipping their usual latte or matcha could actually trigger a headache, he says.

And if you're suffering from more than four headaches a month or if your headaches are interfering with your life, don't rely on caffeine as your go-to treatment. Instead, chat with your doctor about a treatment, such as triptan drugs (which constrict blood vessels and lower the pain threshold) and gepants medications (which reduce inflammation surrounding blood vessels), that's right for you, says Dr. Cooper.

"Many times people who have migraine, unfortunately, grow up in a household that has migraines, so they learn from a young age, 'Oh, mom or dad has a headache, they're going to have to sleep it off for the next day and there's really no hope for them,'" he says. "They don't realize we have really good treatments out there, ways that are way better than just caffeine, to turn off a headache."

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles