If you suffer from headaches, you’ll be well aware of how much they can impact your quality of life. From that first ‘fuzzy feeling’ at the back of your eye socket to the dreaded thumping in your temples, headaches are a nightmare we could all live without. In this article, we’ll look at what causes headaches, and whether there’s any truth to a claim that is increasing in popularity: does magnesium help with headaches?November 16, 2022 7:15 pm February 11, 2022 5:02 pm
What causes headaches?
Headaches have been with us since time immemorial. In fact, the earliest evidence we have of headaches in our ancestors dates back 9,000 years.
Scientists discovered evidence of trepanation – drilling a hole through the skull – in remains from the neolithic period.
Meanwhile, in 400 BC Hippocrates took note of the visual symptoms associated with headaches.(1)
However, despite how long headaches have been with us, we’re still unsure as to exactly what causes them.
Well, to be more specific, we’re not sure what causes primary headaches. This is the type of headache which seems to crop up out of the blue. Primary headaches include migraines, tension headaches and trigeminal autonomic cephalgia (short, viscious headaches on one side of the head).
Secondary headaches, as they are called, can be traced back to causes such as trauma to the head or neck, use of substances (or their withdrawal), infections and psychiatric disorders.(1)
As treatment for secondary headaches often revolves around treatment for the underlying issue, in this article we’ll be focusing mostly on primary headaches.
Types of primary headache
The International Headache Society has categorised 13 different types of primary headache, along with quite a few sub-types.
The most common of these are migraines, tension headaches and cluster headaches. (Another common type is the self-explanatory ‘medication overuse headache’).
Migraines are a moderate or severe headache which appears on one or both sides of the head. It can last from several hours up to two or three days, and can stop you from getting on with your daily activities.
Some people experience other symptoms alongside migraines. For instance, they may feel sick, be sensitive to light and sounds, or experience visual symptoms alongside. One of these symptoms is ‘aura’, which is a change or disturbance in your vision such as a flashing light or blind spot.(2)
It can even provoke short-term paralysis of the hand, arm or face on one side of your body.
Migraines can be really severe, with serious effects on your quality of life. According to some estimates, it causes more disability than epilepsy, and affects between 2 and 15% of the world’s population.
Evidence is growing that migraines are caused by genetic factors. However, scientists are still unsure exactly how certain areas of the brain ‘activate’ headaches and, indeed, why they eventually go away.(2)
This type of headache is more common than migraines, affecting up to 80% of the population at one point or another.
Rather than a throbbing pain, it feels more like a tight band exerting pressure around the head. It can also involve the neck area.
Tension headaches are linked with stress. And, while they’re less severe than migraines individually, it is possible to suffer from chronic tension headaches. These can affect you for over 15 days in a given month and can require you to be off work. So, they’re certainly not to be waved away as inconsequential.
This type of headache is quite rare (affecting about 1 in 1000 men and 1 in 6000 women). But cluster headaches are particularly nasty.
If you have ever experienced a cluster headache, you will instantly recognise the symptoms. For a few weeks a year, or perhaps every two years, you will experience very painful headaches every day on one side of your head.
According to one summary in the BMJ, the pain is so severe that the patient cannot stay in bed, instead pacing the room or even beating their head against the wall to try and relieve it. Eventually, the headache subsides after about 30 – 60 minutes of intense pain.
During a cluster headache, the eye on the side of your head with the pain may turn red and water, and your nose may feel blocked.
Unfortunately, once cluster headaches have materialised in a patient, they can become episodic. You can experience them every now and again for over 30 years.
Medication overuse headache
A quick word on medication overuse headache, as it is fairly common. As the name suggests, this type of headache arises – ironically – from regularly taking painkillers to treat your headaches.
Surprisingly, taking a low dose of painkillers every day is more risky than taking a larger dose once a week.
It is often picked up when patients head to the doctor to ask for stronger painkillers, unaware that the ones they are already using may be causing the problem!
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"Magnesium is one of the most abundant minerals in your body. Much of it goes toward helping to build bones and muscle, but you also need magnesium to produce energy, control blood pressure, and perform many other critical roles."
How common are headaches?
Headaches are extremely common. Over the course of our lifetimes, 96% of us will experience headaches.(1)
Migraine is the third most prevalent disorder in the world, and the seventh highest cause of disability
Some types of headache are more common in women, such as migraines or medication overuse headaches. Meanwhile, cluster headaches are more common in men.
Most of these headaches are benign – not a symptom of anything more sinister. They’re simply an annoyance that most of us will experience at some point.
However, occasionally headaches can be a sign of something more serious. They can, for instance, be a sign of tumours, carbon monoxide poisoning or meningitis, along with other serious medical problems.(2)
If you’re at all worried about your headaches, speak to your doctor for professional medical advice.
Does magnesium help with headaches?
Recently, many people have become interested in magnesium and its role in potentially easing headaches.
However, the majority of the evidence that links magnesium with headaches is specifically related to migraines.
Some research has suggested that people who suffer from migraines may have low levels of magnesium in their systems both during a migraine and between episodes.(3)
Nobody is 100% sure why this might be. However some scientists have suggested that it might be because during a migraine, you may excrete a lot of magnesium due to stress.(3)
It has also been suggested that people who tend to have low levels of magnesium all the time might have a lower threshold for developing a migraine. This is because they don’t need to lose much magnesium before they end up in the ‘migraine danger zone’.
What happens when headache sufferers take a magnesium supplement?
The promising link scientists uncovered between magnesium and migraines led to studies which examined whether supplementing with magnesium helped people with their headaches.
One involved 24 women who experienced migraines around their periods. Versus the placebo group, the women who took a 360mg magnesium supplement reported shorter and less severe headaches.(3)
Another study with 81 migraine sufferers found that taking 600mg of magnesium per day reduced the frequency of headaches by 41.6% (versus 15.8% in the control group).
There are a number of other studies which found similar results. However, one study showed no improvement in migraines after taking magnesium. Some scientists think that this might be because the participants didn’t properly absorb the magnesium, as half of the group complained of experiencing diarrhoea as a side effect.
This brings us nicely onto our next question.
Are there any downsides to taking magnesium for headaches?
Firstly, as mentioned above, most of the evidence for magnesium helping with headaches relates to migraines.
There is some evidence that increasing magnesium levels might also help people with cluster and tension headaches.
For example, one study found that giving cluster headache patients magnesium via a drip stopped them from getting a headache for three days. They described this as ‘meaningful relief’ from their cluster headaches. However we have much less information about the effects of magnesium on cluster and tension headaches. .(3)
So, if you suffer from a type of headache other than migraine, there’s limited evidence that magnesium will help.
Another thing to consider is the side effects you may experience when taking magnesium at high doses – such as those used in the studies cited above.