Acid Reflux Linked to Headaches, Migraines

If you frequently suffer from a painful head — be it from headaches or migraines — you’ve probably looked for the source of your problem. A new study suggests it might be how you treat your heartburn.

A study of more than 11,000 adults found there may be a link between severe headaches and migraines and proton pump inhibitor (PPIs) medications and histamine H2-receptor antagonists, more commonly known as H2-blockers. PPIs include Nexium and Prilosec, and H2-blockers include Pepcid.

The study only looked at prescription-strength medications. It found that people taking PPIs were 70 percent more likely to have migraines or severe headaches. People taking H2-blockers were 40 percent more likely. And folks taking generic antacids were 30 percent more likely.

Acid reflux is one aspect of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). About 20 percent of Americans have GERD. While people who are overweight, pregnant, smoke or regularly exposed to second-hand smoke are more likely to have GERD, anyone can have the condition.

The study doesn’t suggest that the medications cause migraines or headaches. If you need them, you should not hesitate to take them. What this study may show is that people who need those medications are also more likely to suffer from head complaints.

One theory is that it is a problem with the person’s central nervous system or glutamate level… and that might link acid reflux disease and headaches,” said Dr. Medhat Mikhael, a pain management specialist. “When acid is overproduced and retained, it causes an inflammatory cascade in the mucosa of the stomach and esophagus.”

He went on to say, “Another theory is the inflammatory cascade reaction that starts at the GI level can trigger the central nervous system to facilitate the release of the calcitonin gene-related peptides that would trigger migraine.”

There is a reason people on PPIs may have a higher likelihood of having more headaches and migraines. PPIs are the strongest form of antacid and are often prescribed to folks with higher levels of stress and more acid in their system. If you are under more stress, you are more likely to get a headache or migraine.

On the other hand, the study also doesn’t prove that the drugs aren’t part of the problem. Antacids are considered overprescribed. Research has tied long-term use of PPIs to a higher risk of dementia. Most antacid medications are intended to be taken for a short time. If you are taking them constantly, it might be time to speak to your doctor about other treatment options. The scientists say their research results “warrant further study” to rule out that the drugs cause aching heads.

There was also a significant limiting factor in the study. Out of the more than 11,000 study participants, only about 1,000 were taking antacids. That gave the researchers a good view of people taking the medication vs. folks who weren’t. But it’s not a huge study group of antacid users. A large study using only GERD patients to study headaches and migraines may give more insights.    

Banner image: Karolina Grabowska via Pexels

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