Does Alcohol Withdrawal Cause Headaches?

Robert Gerchalk

Robert is our health care professional reviewer of this website. He worked for many years in mental health and substance abuse facilities in Florida, as well as in home health (medical and psychiatric), and took care of people with medical and addictions problems at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He has a nursing and business/technology degrees from The Johns Hopkins University.

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Understanding the Link Between Alcohol Withdrawal and Headaches

Alcohol dependency poses a significant health concern across the United States, impacting up to 10% of adults across the country. If a person has an alcohol use disorder, it can lead to severe health, social, and financial consequences. Dependency on alcohol doesn’t only impact those struggling with addiction. It also impacts their families and communities and puts an added burden on the healthcare system. 

Despite efforts to raise awareness and provide support, the pervasive nature of alcohol dependency underscores the ongoing need for comprehensive strategies, including education, access to treatment, and continued research to address this pressing issue. 

When someone has been drinking regularly and chooses to quit, alcohol withdrawal can result in a series of uncomfortable symptoms, and some of them can put a person’s health at risk. Experts suggest you should seek the help of a doctor or treatment center to detox safely

While there are a variety of different symptoms that occur during the detox process, a common symptom that many people have to cope with is chronic, severe headaches. Alcohol withdrawal is challenging to get through due to a combination of physiological and psychological factors. The severity and duration of withdrawal symptoms can vary depending on several factors, including the level of alcohol consumption, individual health, and any underlying medical conditions. 

It is estimated that 10 million people in the United States are living with alcohol dependency. Of that 10 million, it is predicted that about 40% will experience serious symptoms of alcohol withdrawal if they choose to quit drinking. 

For many, the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are enough to prevent them from quitting alcohol altogether. Being aware of the likely symptoms can help you be prepared for what is to come or allow you to be ready to care for a loved one as they attempt to remain alcohol-free.

Exploring the Connection: Alcohol Withdrawal and Headaches 

The relationship between alcohol withdrawal and headaches is an intricate one. While headaches may seem like a relatively benign complication compared to the other symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, which can include life-threatening seizures, the consistency and intensity of the headaches can make living with this particular symptom a challenge. 

Understanding the nuances of headaches during alcohol withdrawal is crucial in addressing the holistic spectrum of challenges individuals face in their journey towards sobriety. Headaches as part of alcohol withdrawal typically occur within six hours of your last drink. They can develop alongside a number of other symptoms, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Shaky hands and sweating
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Insomnia 

It is common for the symptoms of withdrawal to become more severe over time until you are able to fully detox from alcohol and end the withdrawal process. For many, the symptoms of withdrawal get worse before they get better. However, most people are able to overcome most symptoms within a week of their last drink.

Up to 72 hours after quitting drinking, you are at risk of developing severe headaches alongside a series of other complicated health risks, including the risk for seizures, delusions, and even hallucinations. 

The Causes behind the Headaches during Alcohol Withdrawal 

Neurochemical Changes

Headaches will often develop during alcohol withdrawal as a result of neurochemical changes. This is because prolonged alcohol consumption alters neurotransmitter levels in the brain, particularly affecting gamma-aminobutyric acid, which is commonly referred to as GABA, as well as glutamate. When alcohol intake suddenly stops, there is a sharp rebound effect, which leads to increased excitability in the brain. This change in balance between inhibitory and excitatory neurotransmitters triggers headaches. 

Dehydration and Electrolyte Imbalance 

Another reason that headaches will frequently develop following alcohol consumption, as well as during alcohol withdrawal, is due to dehydration . This type of headache can be incredibly painful, but ultimately, the cause of this headache can be somewhat easily addressed. Alcohol is a diuretic, which means that it increases urination and in doing so increases your risk of becoming dehydrated. Dehydration, especially when coupled with the loss of electrolytes that happens while drinking, can lead to severe headaches

The Connection between Headaches, Alcohol Withdrawal, and Stress 

Stress can cause a spike in headaches even when alcohol or alcohol withdrawal isn’t factoring into the equation. Combine the added stress of quitting drinking with the other neurological causes of headaches during alcohol withdrawal and the severity and frequency of headaches can easily become unbearable. Stress triggers the release of cortisol and other stress hormones, which can contribute to headaches by affecting blood pressure and causing tension in the muscles surrounding the skull. 

Adaptation, Tolerance, and the Risk of Headaches 

The more you drink, the more you can drink. The brain adapts to chronic alcohol exposure by adjusting the function of alcohol in the brain. This is known commonly as a tolerance. Those who drink a lot can drink more without feeling the immediate effects of drunkenness. However, this is actually a negative sign that could indicate dependency. After tolerance is developed, once alcohol is removed, the brain experiences what is called hyperexcitability. This leads to hyperactivity in the brain. Headaches are a common consequence of this altered neurological state.

In addition to these factors, there are some individuals who are more predisposed to experience headaches during alcohol withdrawal due to a series of genetic factors. This might include a history of chronic migraines, personal sensitivity to changes in brain chemistry, or a series of other pre-existing conditions that will vary from person to person. Understanding these interconnected physiological and neurological mechanisms provides insights into why headaches are a prevalent symptom during alcohol withdrawal. 

Managing and Alleviating Headaches After the First Week of Withdrawal

Most of the more serious symptoms of alcohol withdrawal will go away after detoxing in a rehab center or under the supervision of a doctor, which takes about a week. However, some symptoms, such as headaches, fatigue, and insomnia, can persist for several weeks or longer.

Headaches during the later stages of alcohol withdrawal can vary in intensity and duration, affecting just about everyone differently. These headaches often stem from various underlying physiological and neurological changes in the body due to the sudden cessation of alcohol. Factors like neurotransmitter imbalances, alterations in blood flow, and dehydration, not to mention heightened stress, will continue to impact their severity and onset. Healthy strategies to ease the pain of headaches, as well as working with your recovery support network, can help to reduce the severity and frequency of the headaches. It is best to remember to be easy on yourself and to focus on reaching your goal of achieving a sober lifestyle.

Strategies for Alleviating Headaches

The number one thing that you need to remember when experiencing a headache related to alcohol withdrawal is to hydrate. Staying hydrated is crucial to counteract the dehydrating effects of the withdrawal process. The detoxification process typically leads to electrolyte imbalance. In addition, many people experience severe nausea and vomiting during the withdrawal process. These experiences can dehydrate the body, putting additional stress on organs. In severe situations, dehydration will contribute to irregular heartbeat and other serious health complications. Drink plenty of water, herbal teas, and electrolyte-rich beverages that will help you replenish lost fluids and maintain healthy hydration levels. 

In addition to drinking plenty of water, you also need to ensure you are eating a healthy diet. Consuming plenty of nutrient-rich foods can help stabilize blood sugar levels, reducing headaches. Magnesium deficiency is a common cause of persistent headaches; eating nuts and seeds can boost the level of this nutrient in your body. Alternatively, yogurt hydrates your body and can help with nausea by promoting gut health. Do your best to avoid common headache triggers like processed foods. 

Finally, practicing stress-reduction techniques like exercise, meditation, and even deep breathing exercises can help with headaches. Yoga and other mindfulness techniques are especially helpful as they target and alleviate tension while promoting relaxation. These types of exercises are commonly recommended to treat headaches and can help other symptoms of long-term alcohol withdrawal as well. 

The Role of Medication in Easing Alcohol Withdrawal Headaches 

Prior to starting any new form of medication, as you are going through long-term alcohol withdrawal, you need to speak to your doctor. There are an abundance of medications available over the counter that are recommended for standard headaches, but taking too many can be dangerous. 

Rather than using medications, there are a series of other tried-and-true headache remedies that you can access in the medical cabinet at home. For instance, applying a cold compress to the forehead or taking a warm shower may provide some level of temporary relief by soothing tense muscles and promoting relaxation. 

Take Away

Managing headaches during alcohol withdrawal requires a holistic approach that addresses various contributing factors. By prioritizing hydration, adopting healthy lifestyle habits, practicing stress management techniques, and seeking professional support, individuals navigating alcohol withdrawal can effectively manage headaches and other associated symptoms.

There are many different resources available to support you when you decide to quit drinking and embrace a sober lifestyle. You should seek help from a doctor or treatment center because the initial symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can cause serious health issues. After detoxing under the supervision of a professional, you can choose between outpatient or inpatient treatment.

Outpatient treatment may be appropriate for people who have a strong support network and have not had an issue with alcohol for long. Alternatively, an inpatient program where you stay at a treatment center may be a good decision if you need a more structured environment. The best program for you depends on your personal preferences and needs. Talking with a recovery expert can help you make the right decision. 

The Alcohol Awareness Hotline

At Alcohol Awareness, we know how hard it can be to find the support you need for yourself or a loved one because we are recovering alcoholics ourselves. Our hotline is available 24/7. Contact us at (855) 955-0771 today so that we can connect you with alcohol use disorder services in your area.

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