Acid reflux and headaches or migraines can make you miserable. You might think that’s where the link ends, but research shows 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, which allows stomach acid to enter the esophagus, causing heartburn and reflux.
Migraine is a neurological disorder in which the main symptom is four or more severe headaches per month.
Although the link between stomach health and headaches has been documented in the medical literature since the late 1800s, scientists are only just beginning to revisit it.
Research has shown that GERD is common in migraine sufferers, suggesting that migraine sufferers may be predisposed to GERD. People with more prevalent headaches reported more reflux than people without headaches.
Additionally, some studies have shown that treating acid reflux and GERD can help reduce the number of headaches people have, especially for 22% of migraine sufferers who are also diagnosed with GERD.
A better understanding of the causes of acid reflux headaches can help you relieve symptoms. Learn more in this article.
Why do acid reflux headaches happen?
Scientists are still working to understand the exact cause of acid reflux headaches. However, headaches and GERD are thought to be 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. Key neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, are found in the brain and gut.
Whenever there is a disturbance in the brain or gut, communication between these two regions is disrupted. As a result, diseases like GERD can cause headaches, and headaches can also cause gastrointestinal discomfort.
Causes of GERD
Research has found that treating gastroesophageal reflux disease can help reduce the number of headaches people experience. To reduce the acid reflux headaches you experience, it is helpful to understand the causes of GERD.
The underlying cause of GERD is relaxation of the lower esophageal sphincter. It’s a structural problem, but certain lifestyle factors can make it worse, including:
- eating certain foods, including greasy and high-fat foods
GERD and NSAIDs
For people with both GERD and headaches, it is important to educate yourself about the link between nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) use and the development of GERD.
NSAIDs — including the common pain relievers aspirin, Advil (ibuprofen), and Aleve (naproxen) — can increase the severity of GERD symptoms and cause GERD in people who haven’t had it before .
If you have headaches, you should discuss with your healthcare provider how to manage them while minimizing the use of NSAIDs.
There is no specific treatment for acid reflux headaches. However, research shows that managing headaches and GERD can help ease the symptoms of these conditions.
Talk to your healthcare provider about a comprehensive approach to headache and gastroesophageal reflux disease.
If you have frequent headaches, especially migraines, you should talk with your healthcare provider about treatments that can help. This may include prescription medications to prevent migraines or reduce the severity of migraines when they start. Prescription medications used to treat migraines include:
- Triptans: These drugs act on serotonin receptors to relieve migraine headaches.
- Ergot Derivatives: These drugs help blood vessels constrict, which can relieve migraine symptoms.
- Steroids: Steroids can interfere with the progression of a migraine or prevent it from happening in the first place.
- CGRP antagonists: These include Aimovig (erenumab-aooe), Ubrelvy (ubrogepant), and Nurtec ODT (rimegepant), which act as gene-related peptide receptor (CGRP) antagonists to prevent or block pain after it begins.
Remember to use over-the-counter (OTC) medications such as NSAIDs sparingly for frequent headaches. Not only do these exacerbate GERD symptoms, but they can also lead to rebound headaches—symptoms that get more intense when the medication doesn’t work.
Taking medication to control GERD can also help reduce the number of headaches you experience. There are over-the-counter and prescription medications available to treat GERD. These include:
- Antacids: These over-the-counter medicines neutralize stomach acid.
- Proton pump inhibitors: These drugs, available over the counter and by prescription, block the production of stomach acid.
- Histamine blockers: These drugs are used in some cases to treat gastroesophageal reflux disease, although some histamine blockers such as Zantac have been recalled. Be sure to speak with your doctor before using these.
One drug of choice that is often suitable for people with acid reflux headaches is Reglan (metoclopramide).
Reglan is used to treat stomach and gastrointestinal problems, including GERD. Unrelated to this, it is also used to treat migraines, especially during pregnancy. Talk to your healthcare provider about whether Reglan can help with your GERD and headaches.
Making simple lifestyle changes can reduce the number of GERD symptoms you experience. This, in turn, can help you avoid acid reflux headaches.
While weight loss is hard to come by, it’s also one of the most effective ways to reduce GERD symptoms for people who are overweight.
modify your diet
Certain foods can make GERD symptoms worse. Avoiding these can help reduce symptoms. If you have gastroesophageal reflux disease, you should avoid:
- caffeine, which can increase the amount of stomach acid you produce
- Fatty foods, alcohol, and peppermint, all of which increase pressure on the lower esophageal sphincter
- Acidic foods, including coffee and alcohol, can alter bowel movements
head up at night
If you have gastroesophageal reflux disease, use gravity to lower stomach acid. Avoid lying down after meals and raising your head at night to reduce symptoms.
Smoking is a risk factor for GERD.
When to see a healthcare provider
Both GERD and headaches are conditions that can interfere with your life. It is important to manage both conditions by seeking medical care. A healthcare provider can help you determine which treatments and lifestyle changes will work best for you.
Having gastroesophageal reflux disease increases your risk of developing esophageal cancer. This type of cancer usually has no symptoms initially, so it’s best to see your healthcare provider regularly to stay safe.
If you start to show signs of esophageal cancer (such as trouble swallowing or hoarseness), contact your healthcare provider right away.
The way GERD and headaches are intertwined is complex. Since both conditions can have a significant impact on your daily life, you should seek medical attention to help deal with them. Your doctor will guide you to find medications and lifestyle changes to help relieve acid reflux headaches.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why do I get headaches and acid reflux every day?
Headache and acid reflux are related conditions. Since the brain and gut are connected by the gut-brain axis, anything that happens in the brain or gut affects other areas. If you have daily headaches and acid reflux, it may be worth talking to a healthcare provider.
What Medications Can Relieve Headaches Caused by Acid Reflux?
Acid control medications, including antacids, proton pump inhibitors, or other GERD treatments may help relieve headaches caused by acid reflux. People with GERD should avoid NSAIDs because these drugs can worsen acid reflux symptoms.
How Do You Relieve Acid Reflux Headaches Naturally?
Avoiding alcohol and smoking, reducing your intake of caffeine, fatty and acidic foods, losing weight, and raising your head at night may help relieve acid reflux headaches naturally.