Caffeine

Migraine and caffeine: an introduction

Caffeine is a drug that has no flavor and occurs naturally in food. It can also be made synthetically. Caffeine is somewhat addictive and is added to some products, such as soft drinks and medications. The body quickly absorbs caffeine, and it moves rapidly to the brain. It doesn’t stay in the bloodstream but is removed in the urine.

Caffeine can be a trigger for a headache, or it can help stop headaches or migraines. Although it doesn’t directly cause a headache or a migraine, too much caffeine can cause a rebound or withdrawal effect if too much is consumed and then stopped. Conversely, caffeine can also aid in pain relief from migraine, and it  is a main ingredient in many migraine over-the-counter medications.1

Foods containing caffeine

Caffeine is found in varying levels in many foods and drinks, including:

  • Coffee
  • Tea
  • Chocolate
  • Cocoa
  • Sodas, soft drinks2

How caffeine works on migraine

Caffeine can shrink or constrict the blood vessels, called vasoconstriction. During a migraine, the blood vessels to the brain enlarge, and it is believed that the vasoconstrictive properties of caffeine help to ease the pain of migraine. Studies have found that by adding caffeine to a pain reliever like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or aspirin, the pain relieving effect can be increased by 40%.1

Migraine medicines containing caffeine

Several medications for migraine contain caffeine, including:

  • Anacin—Caffeine and aspirin
  • Excedrin Migraine—Caffeine, aspirin and acetaminophen
  • Midol—Caffeine, acetaminophen and pyrilamine maleate
  • BC Powder—Caffeine and aspirin
  • Norgesic—prescription containing caffeine, aspirin and orphenadrine
  • Fioricet—prescription containing caffeine, acetaminophen and butalbital

This is not a complete list. Always consult your doctor or pharmacist for advice on medications.

Side effects and other precautions

People react differently to caffeine. Some people are more sensitive to the effects of caffeine than others, and in certain people, caffeine may cause side effects such as:

  • Headache
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Anxiety or nervousness
  • Muscle twitching/tremors
  • Abnormal heart rhythms/palpitations
  • Excessive urination
  • Restlessness
  • Indigestion or upset stomach3

Who should not take caffeine for migraine

Women who are pregnant, may become pregnant or breastfeeding shouldn’t consume large doses of caffeine.3

Children and adolescents should limit caffeine.3

Caffeine is addictive, so if it is stopped abruptly withdrawal symptoms might occur. It is best to gradually discontinue use. Stopping caffeine quickly can lead to headaches, irritability, nausea, drowsiness and other symptoms.

Inform your doctor about any and all medications and supplements you are taking. Caffeine may interact with other medications.

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As always, the best source for advice on treating your migraines is your own migraine specialist. These descriptions of natural remedies are provided only for informational purposes. You should begin no medication or supplement without first checking with your physician.

Written by: Otesa Miles and Emily Downward | Last review date: May 2018
View References
  1. Food sources of caffeine. Dietitians of Canada. https://www.dietitians.ca/Your-Health/Nutrition-A-Z/Caffeine/Food-Sources-of-Caffeine.aspx. Accessed 5/3/18.
  2. Does caffeine trigger or treat headaches? National Headache Foundation. Available at https://headaches.org/2009/07/24/does-caffeine-trigger-or-treat-headaches/. Accessed 5/3/18.
  3. Caffeine: how much is too much? Mayo Clinic. Available at https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/caffeine/art-20045678. Accessed 5/3/18.