Caffeine withdrawal headaches develop after someone who usually consumes caffeine stops consuming it or cuts back on their intake too quickly. Consuming caffeine resolves caffeine withdrawal headaches, but other home and over-the-counter remedies can also ease symptoms.
Here, we look at the causes of caffeine withdrawal headaches, other symptoms, and how to treat caffeine withdrawal and dependency safely.
Caffeine is one of the most popular psychoactive drugs in the world, present in many drinks and foods. It belongs to the methylxanthine class of stimulants that act on the central nervous system. These stimulants:
- speed up metabolism
- increase urine production
- improve digestion
- increase heart rate
- relax smooth muscles
- increase alertness
- enhance physical performance
- potentially help treat some types of cancer when in compounds derived from caffeine
However, caffeine may cause or contribute to headaches in a number of ways. One analysis reported that 50% of people experience a throbbing, widespread headache during caffeine withdrawal.
This is because caffeine has a vasoconstrictive effect, meaning it narrows blood vessels and reduces blood flow. With regular caffeine consumption, blood vessels become familiar with this constriction.
Caffeine reductions can trigger a rebound effect, causing blood vessels to widen. This reaction is significant because blood vessels tend to enlarge before the onset of certain types of headache.
Caffeine also blocks adenosine receptors in the brain, which are pain modulators. Blocking these receptors can potentially decrease the spread of pain in the head.
People who consume caffeine regularly tend to develop more of these adenosine receptors, making them more likely to develop a headache when they stop drinking caffeine.
The quickest and easiest way to relieve a caffeine-withdrawal headache is to consume caffeine.
However, people trying to cut back on caffeine can use several other remedies or tricks to reduce caffeine withdrawal headaches.
Taking over-the-counter pain medication
Medicines that are available over the counter, such as ibuprofen, aspirin, and acetaminophen, contain compounds that block pain signals and ease most headaches.
That said, taking pain medication more than two to three times a week may lead to a headache known as a medication overuse headache, or a rebound headache.
Dehydration causes the brain to shrink, which can set off pain receptors in the skull. Sometimes even minor dehydration can lead to an intense headache.
Icing an area constricts the underlying blood vessels and slows the transmission of nerve signals.
In one study, researchers showed that applying a frozen neck wrap to the neck reduced pain in participants who were experiencing migraines.
Applying topical menthol
Menthol can numb the skin and reduce pain. Rubbing a few drops of diluted peppermint essential oil on the forehead or temples may be effective.
Getting enough rest
Sleep and sleep disorders are associated with many types of headache, meaning there is generally a link between sleep and headache pain. Getting the right amount of quality sleep each night usually reduces headache pain.
However, getting too much sleep or using sleep medications too often can make headaches worse.
Researchers are not sure how acupuncture eases headache pain, but it may slow down the transmission of pain signals and activate brain pathways that can turn them off.
Acupressure is a technique based on the traditional Chinese medical therapy of acupuncture. It involves manipulating specific pressure points in the body, which may help reduce headaches by improving blood circulation and lessening muscle tension.
Researchers have studied many different dietary supplements as potential treatments or preventative options for headaches. They have found only a handful with potentially positive effects:
Most supplements only work when taken regularly over time.
Anyone thinking of trying herbal supplements should talk to their doctor first as some can interact with other medications while others, such as butterbur, may have potentially harmful side effects.
Read more about natural remedies for headaches here.
The most common symptom of caffeine withdrawal is a headache. People who cut back on their regular caffeine consumption may also experience the following:
- trouble concentrating
- hand tremors or shakiness
- fatigue and drowsiness
- depressed mood
- increased heart rate
- nausea and vomiting
- raised or reduced blood pressure
- skin flushing
- flu-like symptoms
- joint and abdominal pain
- muscle stiffness
The severity and number of symptoms someone experiences during caffeine withdrawal depends on how much they normally consume and how quickly they cut back on caffeine.
Typically, the more caffeine someone consumes and the faster they cut back, the more severe and wide ranging their symptoms are likely to be.
Even people who only drink one small cup of coffee daily for 3 days can experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop drinking coffee suddenly. It may only take 3 days of caffeine exposure to experience withdrawal symptoms with these worsening after 7–14 days of consumption.
According to one study, most people develop withdrawal symptoms within 12–24 hours of cutting back or cutting out caffeine, and experience the most severe symptoms at around 20–51 hours. Caffeine withdrawal symptoms can last from 2–9 days.
People often describe caffeine withdrawal headaches as a widespread, throbbing head pain. The International Headache Society defines a caffeine withdrawal headache as a headache that:
- develops within 24 hours after last consuming caffeine in people who consume at least 200 milligrams (mg) per day of caffeine for more than 2 weeks
- goes away after 7 consecutive days of not consuming caffeine
- improves within 1 hour of consuming 100 mg of caffeine
Doctors may also diagnose someone with a caffeine withdrawal headache if their symptoms do not match those of other types of headache.
The best way to reduce caffeine dependency is gradually, ideally, by cutting down on caffeine intake by around 25% each week.
Coffee, tea, or soda drinkers may find it easier to transition to decaffeinated versions of their favorite beverages. People could also try mixing decaf with caffeinated drinks and gradually increasing the proportion of decaf to caffeinated.
Several other tricks and lifestyle habits can also help people reduce their caffeine dependence, such as:
- replacing caffeinated foods and drinks with caffeine free alternatives
- staying hydrated
- getting enough good quality sleep
- exercising regularly
- eating healthful, nutrient-packed foods
- practicing stress reduction techniques
- reading ingredient labels to avoid unexpected sources of caffeine, such as in chocolates and candies, and tracking caffeine intake
Learn more about the risks and benefits of caffeine.
Caffeine withdrawal headaches develop when people cut back on their regular caffeine intake too quickly.
Caffeine withdrawal headaches are not serious, and people can usually treat with home remedies.
People looking to reduce their caffeine dependency should do so gradually. Cutting back by around 25% each week will lessen the risk of withdrawal headaches and other symptoms.
Practicing good health tips, such as sleeping well and staying hydrated, is another way of reducing the risk of headaches.
Speak with a doctor about headaches if they are:
- severe, frequent, or chronic
- not simultaneous with caffeine intake changes
- do not stop after consuming caffeine
- last more than a week after cutting out caffeine
- accompanied by vision changes, confusion, memory loss, fever, or severe vomiting and nausea