Acid reflux and headaches or migraines can make you feel miserable. You’d think that’s where the link ends, but research has shown a strong correlation between gastrointestinal disorders and headaches.
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a condition in which the lower esophageal sphincter does not close properly, allowing stomach acid to enter the esophagus, causing heartburn and regurgitation.
Migraine is a neurological disorder the main symptom of which is four or more severe headaches per month.
Although a link between stomach health and headache has been established in the medical literature since the late 19th century, scientists are only just beginning to re-examine the link.
Research has shown that GERD is common in people with migraines, suggesting that migraineurs may be predisposed to GERD. People with more frequent headaches report more reflux than people without a headache.
Additionally, some research shows that treating acid reflux and GERD can help reduce the number of headaches, especially in the 22% of migraineurs who have also been diagnosed with GERD.
A better understanding of the causes of acid reflux headache can help you relieve the symptoms. Learn more in this article.
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Why Acid Reflux Headaches Occur
Scientists are still working to understand the exact cause of acid reflux headaches. However, it is believed that headache and GERD are linked through the gut-brain axis. Research shows that the gut and brain communicate with each other through the central nervous system, endocrine system, and immune system. Critical neurotransmitters like serotonin are found in both the brain and the gut.
Whenever a disorder occurs in the brain or intestines, communication between the two regions can be interrupted. In this way, a condition like GERD can contribute to headaches, and headaches can also contribute to gastrointestinal discomfort.
Causes of GERD
Research has found that treating GERD can help reduce the number of headaches people have. To reduce the acid reflux headaches you are experiencing, it is helpful to understand the causes of GERD.
The underlying cause of GERD is a relaxed lower esophageal sphincter. This is a structural problem, but certain lifestyle factors can make it worse, including:
- Eating certain foods, including fatty and high-fat foods
GERD and NSAIDs
It’s important for people who have both GERD and headaches to educate themselves about the relationship between using nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and developing GERD.
NSAIDs – which include the popular pain reliever drugs aspirin, Advil (ibuprofen), and Aleve (naproxen) – can make GERD symptoms worse and lead to the development of GERD in people who have never had them before.
If you have a headache, it is a good idea to speak to a doctor to help control it while minimizing your use of NSAIDs.
There are no specific treatments for acid reflux headaches. However, research shows that controlling both headache and GERD can help alleviate the symptoms of these conditions.
Talk to your doctor about a comprehensive treatment approach that addresses both headaches and GERD.
If you have frequent headaches, especially migraines, you should talk to your doctor about treatments that can help you. This may include prescription medications to help prevent migraines or reduce their severity when they start. Prescription medications used to treat migraines include:
- Triptans: This class of drugs works on serotonin receptors to help relieve migraines.
- Ergot derivatives: These drugs help narrow blood vessels, which can relieve migraine symptoms.
- Steroids: Steroids can interfere with or even prevent the progression of a migraine.
- CGRP antagonists: These drugs include Aimovig (Erenumab-Aooe), Ubrelvy (Ubrogepant), and Nurtec ODT (Rimegepant), which act as gene-related peptide receptor (CGRP) antagonists to prevent or block pain once it starts to have.
Remember to use caution with over-the-counter (OTC) drugs such as NSAIDs to manage common headaches. Not only can these make GERD symptoms worse, but they can also lead to rebound headaches – symptoms that become more pronounced as the medication wears off.
Acid Controlling Medicine
Taking medication to control GERD can also help reduce the number of headaches you experience. There are OTC and prescription drugs that can be used to treat GERD. These include:
- Antacids: These OTC drugs neutralize stomach acid.
- Proton Pump Inhibitors: These over-the-counter and prescription drugs inhibit the production of stomach acid.
- Histamine blockers: These drugs are used to treat GERD in some cases, although some histamine blockers, such as Zantac, have been recalled. Be sure to talk to your doctor before using this.
One medication option that is often well-suited for people with acid reflux headache is Reglan (metoclopramide).
Reglan is used to treat stomach and gastrointestinal problems, including GERD. Regardless, it is also used to treat migraines, especially during pregnancy. Talk to your doctor about whether Reglan could be helpful in treating your GERD and headaches.
By making simple lifestyle changes, you can reduce the number of GERD symptoms that you experience. This, in turn, can help prevent acid reflux headaches.
Although weight loss is difficult to achieve, it is also one of the most effective ways to reduce GERD symptoms for people who are overweight.
Change your diet
Certain foods can make GERD symptoms worse. Avoiding these can help reduce symptoms. If you have GERD, here are some things to avoid:
- Caffeine, which can increase the amount of stomach acid you make
- Fatty foods, alcohol, and peppermint increase the pressure on the lower esophageal sphincter
- Acidic foods that contain coffee and alcohol that can alter the movement of your intestinal tract
Raise your head in the night
If you have GERD, use gravity to your advantage to keep stomach acid down. Avoid lying down after you eat and put your head up at night to reduce symptoms.
Smoking is a risk factor for GERD.
When to See a Healthcare Provider
GERD and headache are both conditions that can affect your life. It is important to manage both conditions by seeing a doctor. A health care provider can help you determine which treatments and lifestyle changes will be most effective for you.
GERD can increase your risk of developing esophageal cancer. This type of cancer often has no symptoms initially, so it’s a good idea to see your doctor regularly to be on the safe side.
If you notice any signs of esophageal cancer – such as difficulty swallowing or hoarseness – contact your doctor immediately.
Frequently asked Questions:
What headache medications can I take for acid reflux?
Talk to your doctor about the best headache relievers to take if you have heartburn. People with GERD should avoid NSAIDs as these drugs can make acid reflux symptoms worse.
Why do I have a headache and heartburn every day?
Headache and acid reflux are related conditions. Since the brain and the gut are connected by the gut-brain axis, anything that happens in the brain or gut can affect the other area. In addition, NSAIDs, drugs commonly used to treat headaches, can make acid reflux worse. If you experience headaches and heartburn every day, it is a good idea to speak to a doctor.
How do you relieve an acid reflux headache?
Steps to relieve symptoms of GERD can help relieve an acid reflux headache. Losing weight, avoiding alcohol and caffeine, and elevating your head at night can reduce acid reflux and help with acid reflux headaches.
A word from Verywell
The way in which GERD and headache are intertwined is complex. Since both of these conditions can have a huge impact on your daily life, you should seek medical treatment to manage them. A doctor will guide you in finding the medications and lifestyle changes that can help relieve your acid reflux headache.