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Can Dehydration Cause Headaches?

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Updated May 16, 2014

This article describes some observations about a possible connection between not drinking enough water and getting headaches. The guest author is James Lehman, DC, a professor of orthopedics and neurology at the University of Bridgeport College of Chiropractic in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Do Americans Drink Enough Water?

I frequently read that 75 percent of Americans do not drink enough water. Even the CIGNA Behavioral web site authors referenced this statement by B. Levine, Hydration 101: The Case for Drinking Enough Water. This same website claimed that dehydration was a major cause of headaches. My clinical experience confirms that many of my patients with headaches are also not drinking adequate amounts of water.

I don't know if 75 percent is the exact percentage, but I am certain that many of my patients are not properly hydrated. People perceive that they are too busy to drink water. They don't want to waste time with the very normal process of urination. And some people hate the taste of water.

In other words, many individuals consider the frequent consumption of water to be a real headache. Thirst is not usually the first symptom or the only symptom of dehydration; other symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Dry mouth
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Dry, flushed skin
  • Muscle cramps, and myofascial pain.

A common sign of dehydration observed in my clinic is extreme muscle pain upon palpation of the muscle tissues. This muscle pain is exhibited upon examination with a positive jump sign. A positive jump sign occurs when a patient reacts strongly to gentle touching of the involved muscles and quickly moves away from the palpating fingers. One of the most common signs of dehydration involves a loss of skin tone or loose, wrinkled skin.

What many of us don't realize is that dehydration is one of the causes of frequent headaches, even in children. The International Life Sciences Institute published an excellent monograph, Hydration: Fluids for Life, which states: Children, and especially infants and toddlers, are at greater risk of dehydration than adults. Dehydration in children is not only serious, but can be life-threatening.

The very respected Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research acknowledged inadequate hydration as a cause of headaches in children in "Headaches and kids: More common -- and complicated -- than you think." Mary Cooper S.R.D., a community dietitian at the Leeds Schools, wrote an article in The School Nutrition Action Group Newsletter's called, "Good Hydration - Hype or a Neglected Area?"

She researched the fluid requirements, shared the Leeds experience, suggested actions, and offered standards and guidance. She said the effects of poor hydration range from thirst and headaches, continence problems and constipation, to concerns of urinary tract infections, renal stones and renal disease.

I commend this initiative to encourage drinking more water as a Healthy Schools Standard. If children are encouraged to increase their water intake, they are more likely to enjoy a healthy childhood and possibly continue to drink enough water as adults.

I have encountered a number of adult patients complaining of headaches who reported drinking less water than they should. To make it worse, the majority of their fluid replacement involved the consumption of coffee. As an example, a 59-year-old male claimed to drink about 24 ounces of water per day.

This was a big man weighing 210 pounds. Normally, I would suggest a man of this size to drink at least 80 ounces of water. He mentioned that most of his water came from drinking coffee. I cringed and wondered what prevented him from suffering with kidney stones. He then stated that he has been experiencing pain in his kidneys. Now I am wondering whether people suffer headaches from too much caffeine or too little water?

I told the patient to drink more water, and reduce his coffee intake. I also told him to implement a life style change that would include drinking 100 ounces of water per day. It was stressed that he should drink no more than three to four ounces at a time repetitively throughout the day and into the early evening.

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