A migraine trigger is any event, change, act, or any other external or internal factor that can result in migraine attacks. Triggers might be easy to control, like avoiding dehydration, harder to control, like avoiding stress, or impossible to control, like changes in the weather!
Tackling triggers could be the most effective way of taking control of migraine
There is no one single migraine trigger that affects everyone. A study by the National Migraine Centre found 79 per cent of patients were aware of factors that they thought triggered migraine attacks – but most felt that several triggers at once were needed.
Triggers for migraine attacks vary from one individual to the next, but there are some common triggers that affect many people with migraine.
Here’s just a few of the most common triggers…
Migraine food triggers are thought to be far less common than many people think. Certain foods, in particular cheese, chocolate, citrus fruits and dairy produce have been blamed for triggering migraine. However, the true link with migraine is uncertain since many people will crave these foods before the headache starts and may then mistakenly believe it was the food that triggered the attack.
Read our factsheet on migraine and food to learn more.
Delayed or missed meals often result in a drop in blood sugar, which can trigger migraine attacks. This is often the most important trigger in children, particularly when they are going through a growth spurt or involved in strenuous exercise. Many children will come home from school with a bad headache if they haven’t had sufficient food often enough during the day. But insufficient food may also be an important migraine trigger in adults too.
Dehydration is a common migraine trigger. You should aim to drink at least eight glasses of water per day. This is in addition to any other drinks you may have. Fizzy drinks can contain the sweetener aspartame, which some people link to their migraine attacks.
Any list of triggers for people with migraine must include alcohol, which is probably the most frequently mentioned. Certain types of alcohol contain chemicals that can either directly affect blood vessels or provoke the release of other chemicals in the body that are thought to be involved in migraine.
Excessive consumption of caffeine may contribute to the onset of migraine. You could try limiting your intake to no more than three cups of coffee or four or five cups of tea each day. Cola and some other soft drinks contain caffeine and should also be consumed in moderation; energy drinks, in particular, can have high levels of caffeine.
Changes in your daily routine can be behind many common migraine triggers. For example, changing sleep patterns, peaks and troughs of stress and even otherwise pleasant changes, such as a holiday, can also lead to an attack.
Lack of sleep is recognised as a migraine trigger, but other factors may also be important. For example, a lack of sleep can result from depression, anxiety, menopausal hot flushes or delayed bedtime due to social events, work or study – each of these could be a migraine trigger in its own right.
Many people notice that sleeping in for even just half an hour longer than usual can result in migraine. This may be one cause for weekend migraine attacks.
Those who work Monday to Friday often report that attacks are more likely to occur at a weekend. This could be a result of a gradual build up of triggers during the week, ending in new triggers just before the weekend, such as relaxation after stress, a late night on Friday, alcohol consumption, sleeping in on Saturday morning or altered eating patterns.
Many people with migraine find they can cope with stress without having an attack at the time, but will have attacks when they relax. It’s not uncommon for migraine to hit following a work deadline, after a big event like a wedding or on the first day of a holiday.
However, stress rarely occurs without a knock-on effect for other possible triggers too, such as missed meals, poor sleep and increased muscle tension.
How often have you found that a long journey by car or plane results in a migraine? Travel is associated with a host of potential migraine triggers: lack of sleep from preparation for the trip and from the trip itself, stress, missed or delayed meals, noise, and dehydration.
Computer work is often a cause of headache. The causes could be both related to the flickering screen and to how you sit and work at the computer.
If you’re unfit, strenuous exercise can trigger an attack, as well as causing muscle aches and pains.
This puts many people off taking exercise, but regular exercise can actually help prevent migraine.
A new exercise programme should start off gently, building up the pace gradually over several weeks.
It’s important to keep the exercise sessions regular. Short, frequent sessions are more beneficial than long, infrequent sessions.
In a study undertaken at the National Migraine Centre , more than 50 per cent of women reported that they were more likely to have a migraine attack around the time of their menstrual period.
Although most women have attacks at other times of the cycle too, a small percentage of women have attacks that are exclusively associated with menstruation.
Most people will get a headache when they have a cold or a viral infection, but migraine attacks can also be triggered. It’s not clear if the illness is a trigger in its own right or if it lowers the migraine threshold so that fewer triggers will lead to an attack.
Neck and back pain can trigger migraine attacks, particularly if it results from a specific injury. But even simple muscle tension from poor posture, sitting in front of a computer or driving a car can be a cause.
If you find that your jaw clicks when you eat or even locks, or you frequently wake with migraine after grinding your teeth at night, you may have a problem with your jaw joint.
Pain and tenderness in the jaw joints can be associated with tension in the muscles controlling the jaw. This may lead to headache, often daily, but can also trigger migraine attacks.
Find out more about all of these triggers – and our tips for how you can avoid or minimise their impact, with our Migraine Triggers factsheet.