Caffeine for Headaches?

By Ellen Kuwana
Neuroscience for Kids Staff Writer
May 21, 2002

An apple a day may keep the doctor away, but a cup of coffee may chase away a headache. Researchers at Chicago's Diamond Headache clinic found that 200 mg of caffeine, about the amount in a large cup of coffee, provided the same degree of pain relief as 400 mg of ibuprofen (the active ingredient in over-the-counter pain relievers such as Advil, Nuprin and Motrin). Additionally, the caffeine provided faster relief -- about half an hour faster. The most effective treatment for pain relief was caffeine and ibuprofen. This combination gave relief that lasted about four hours longer than either treatment alone.

The study included 345 people who were placed into one of four groups:

  1. Received 400 mg of ibuprofen
  2. Received 200 mg of caffeine
  3. Received both 400 mg of ibuprofen and 200 mg of caffeine
  4. Received a placebo (sugar tablet).

The study participants suffered from tension headaches that are characterized by constant, dull pain. To be in the study, each person had to have tension headaches at least three times a month. The study lasted for two months.

Study Results
Group% of people reporting pain relief
Ibuprofen alone58%
Caffeine alone58%
Ibuprofen AND caffeine71%

Why should caffeine provide pain relief? During a tension headache, blood vessels dilate, meaning they are open wider. Caffeine causes the vessels to constrict, or become more narrow. Because this treatment causes a temporary elevation in blood pressure, people with heart problems should avoid this method of stopping tension headaches.

The researchers caution that frequent consumption of caffeine can trigger headaches in some people. Other studies have shown that pregnant women who drink regular high doses of caffeine (300 mg) may have 1) higher rates of miscarriages or 2) babies with low birth weights. Caffeine is found in coffee, tea, some soft drinks and "energy" drinks, chocolate, and some medications. As with any treatment, consult a doctor first.

Did you know?

Tension headaches are the most common type of headache: 68% of men and 88% of women have had episodes of tension headaches. They involve mild to moderate steady pain, tightness, or pressure around the head and neck. They may be provoked by the stress and frustrations of everyday life, eye strain or poor posture.
From The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Migraine Information Center
Did you know?

According to a 2001 survey by the Bristol-Myers Squibb Company, accountants get the most headaches. About 49% of the accountants in the survey reported getting weekday headaches. The accountants were followed by librarians (43%), bus and truck drivers (42%) and construction workers (38%).

References and further information:

  1. "Caffeine key to curing headache," by Emma Young. New Scientist, October 29, 2001.
  2. Caffeine can ease headaches.' from BBC News, October 29, 2001.

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