Headaches are sometimes thought of occurring as the sign of a larger problem, and in most cases, this is true. Headaches often accompany colds, flus, chronic pain, and even food poisoning. However, sometimes headaches occur seemingly at random, but there may actually be a reason. That reason is dehydration.
Believe it or not, dehydration can cause headaches. Dehydration is classified as the loss of water and electrolytes, such as sodium, chloride, and potassium, all of which are necessary for the body to function. Dehydration occurs when we are losing more fluids than we put in, and the main cause of dehydration is not drinking enough water to maintain healthy levels. A variety of unpleasant symptoms occur when this happens, including headaches. Severe dehydration is serious and potentially life threatening.
The initial symptoms of dehydration include thirst and minor discomfort, but can also include the following prior to, or during a water-deprivation headache:
- Dry mouth
- Parched lips
- Dry or flushed skin
- Rapid heartbeat
- Muscle cramps
Typically, people may notice a decrease in urine output and will have urine that is dark or amber in color. More severe signs are low blood pressure, swelling of the tongue, unconsciousness, and even death in the most extreme cases.
But what exactly does a dehydration headache feel like? Someone experiencing a water-deprivation headache may experience pain at the front, back, or on just one side of the head, or it may be felt throughout the entire head. Bending the head down or moving it from side to side often worsens the headache. Even simply walking can cause more head pain.
Research is still on-going about precisely how dehydration causes headaches. According to some experts, it's a byproduct of the body's effort to maintain adequate fluid levels. The blood vessels narrow, reducing the brain's supply of blood and oxygen. In order to compensate, the blood vessels expand, and this swelling can cause head pain. The brain can't feel pain, so the headache discomfort may result from pain receptors in the lining that surrounds the brain. The loss of electrolytes may also contribute to dehydration headaches, so some athletes may opt to replenish their fluids with sports drinks enhanced with electrolytes. However, these beverages also contain a high sugar content, so our physicians advise consuming them in moderation.
The easiest way to get rid of a dehydration headache is by drinking water. 16 to 32 ounces of water should do the trick, and that's up to four cups! However, our bodies cannot handle large amounts of water at once. Drinking too much, too quickly can lead to a sluggish, bloated feeling, so patients should gradually consume water every 10 minutes or so. Patients should start to feel better within one to two hours. This can be particularly useful during exercise. In fact, dehydration can cause exercise headaches (also known as exertion headaches), so it's important to hydrate before, after, and during workouts. For severe dehydration, the person may need to slowly lie down and drink more fluids. In extreme cases, intravenous rehydration may be necessary.
The key to avoiding a dehydration headache is by using preventative measures to remain hydrated. Be sure to maintain an adequate fluid intake and eat foods that are naturally high in water content, such as vegetables and fruits, and generally avoid foods with a high salt content. This includes fried foods and processed foods filled with preservatives.
It’s important to note that not all fluids are equal when it comes to fluid replacement. Coffee and alcohol are bad choices since both act as diuretics, which promote urination and fluid loss, and can cause or exacerbate dehydration and headaches. If patients are chronically dehydrated, as is the case with many Americans, they may not always feel thirsty before becoming dehydrated. That's why it's important to listen to the body in other ways and look for dry skin, dark urine, dry eyes, and other signs.
It's particularly easy to neglect fluid replacement when exercising or engaging in strenuous activity, or when sick with an illness that causes vomiting or diarrhea. These are times when special precautions should be taken to proactively replace the fluids you lose.
Drinking enough water does more than just prevent water-deprivation headaches - it can also prevent migraines. While we do not know exactly what causes a migraine, we do know that dehydration is a known trigger for migraine headaches. One study even showed that when the study participants drank more water each day, they had fewer symptoms and less severe migraines overall.
If you experience regular headaches, even after increasing your intake of fluids, a more severe underlying condition may be present. The headache experts at The Pain Center of Arizona can utilize state-of-the-art diagnostic technologies and a physical exam to find the source of your headaches. For example, chronic tension headaches can cause similar symptoms to dehydration headaches. Referred pain from the neck can also cause similar symptoms. Once the cause has been identified, patients can begin chronic headache treatment. Depending on the cause, our physicians can provide medication, occipital nerve block injections, and more.
If you suffer from chronic pain due to any condition or injury, find hope at The Pain Center of Arizona! Our dedicated team of board certified pain management physicians will work with you to treat your pain, increase your functionality and quality of life, and get you back into life! We have locations across Arizona, including Phoenix, Anthem, Surprise, Mesa, Gilbert, Deer Valley, Paradise Valley, Scottsdale, and now Prescott and Tucson! We take multiple insurance plans; click here to see if we take yours! To make an appointment and take the first step toward getting back into life, call us today at 1-888-PAINCENTER. We hope to see you soon!
The advice and information contained in this article is for educational purposes only, and is not intended to replace or counter a physician's advice or judgment. Please always consult your physician before taking any advice learned here or in any other educational medical material.
©The Pain Center of Arizona, 2016
©Medical Marketing Solutions, 2016