There is a sound so frequent and familiar in my house that I recognize it as the click of a key at the front door. It’s the low creak of the medicine cabinet opening, followed by the rattle of a giant bottle of pills. A few times a week, at least one person in my house has a headache. Do you also have a headache right now, even while reading these words? The odds are good that you will.
In April, a narrative review by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and published in The Journal of Headache and Pain revealed that each and every day “15.8% of the world’s population had a headacheand nearly half of those people report a migraine (7%).” The Australian Standard harshly points out: “That means 1.1 billion people have a headache today.” And as the study’s lead author, Lars Jacob Stovner, said in a press release, “the prevalence of headache disorders remain high worldwideand cargo of different kinds can affect many.”
“Every day, 15.8% of the world’s population had a headache, and nearly half of those people report a migraine.”
Over the years, I had come to take headaches so much for granted in my life that I rarely thought about them much. I’m hungryI eat. I’m tired, I rest. I have a headache, I take Excedrin. That’s how the days go by, right? But on a recent too sunny afternoon, I found myself among that 7% of people worldwide who suffer from migraines every day. As I closed my eyes and sobbed quietly at a local Target snack bar, I was reminded that just because a condition is common doesn’t mean it’s inevitable, or easy to manage.
More than half of us have had a headache in the last year and, as Northwestern Medicine reports, they are “more common, longer lasting and more frequent in women”. we are also far more likely to get migraines. It’s not just COVID-19 sending acetaminophen flying off the shelvesthey are our heads.
But are the headaches increasing, or does it just feel like this all the time under our strained faces? The authors of the Norwegian study, who reviewed findings from 357 publications, are cautious about drawing conclusions. They note that although “headache disorders remain highly prevalent worldwide” and that they “found an apparent increase in the prevalence of migraine,” there is “Large variation between study findings.” Populations with higher awareness of migraine disorders, for example, reported a higher prevalence of migraine disorders.
What seems indisputable, however, is that we are creating many conditions that give us headaches everywhere. We normally spend more than twelve hours each day on our devices, looking at the text and inhaling blue light. we ingest lots of caffeine — 93% of us consume it at least sometimes, and among those who enjoy it, 25% of us have it three or more times a day.
Perhaps that is one of the reasons why we sleep less. A 2019 Ball State University study found that 35.6% of respondents said they were receiving less than seven hours of sleep per night, with police officers and health workers reporting getting by with five or six. Those numbers haven’t improved in the past two years: A HealthDay poll earlier this year found that a third of respondents said they were more tired now than they were at the start of the pandemic. Y 28.5% said they slept less.
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This brings us to the pandemic in the room. A 2021 study by the American Psychological Association found that nearly half of those surveyed said they were more stressed now than in previous years. Stress is a headache in and of itself, but then you can escalate the problem by adding everything that stress brings with it. As NPR reported, “More than 40% [of respondents] they said they had gained weight during the pandemic. Nearly a quarter said they were drinking more. Nearly two-thirds sleep too much or too little.”
Then there is COVID-19 itself. In January, the National Institutes of Health called for “further research into the underlying causes of Long Covid and possible ways to treat its symptoms.” including neurological like headaches. “I felt like my head was going to explode” one such patient told the CBC in April, “and no medicine was enough to make it better.”
Is it any wonder your head is splitting? I’d be surprised if it wasn’t. However, perhaps like me, you have become so accustomed to pain that you have normalized it. We do not go to. My recent migraine was a reminder that it shouldn’t get that bad before I get serious about my own well-being, and that preventing pain is much less intrusive than a complete neurological breakdown that ends the weekend.
Hormones, illnesses, vision problems, and the legitimate psychological toll of living through this moment in history can’t always be controlled. Of course, persistent, severe, or worrisome headaches should be evaluated by a doctor. But there are fairly simple steps we can take to reduce the risks of the typical headaches that afflict many of us, many of which you probably already know about.
Here’s the least expected trick to blocking a headache: reconsider the amount of headache medicine you’re taking.
What the Mayo Clinic advises, get enough sleep. Watch your caffeine intake. Exercise and keep a regular eating schedule. Work on your stress reduction. Those are the basics, but there are others. Cultivate awareness of your own individual triggers. Do certain foods seem to trigger you? Are bright or flashing lights a problem? (That was the main culprit for my last migraine.) But here’s the least expected trick to blocking your headache: Reconsider the amount of headache medicine you’re taking.
Using headache medications, including over-the-counter products like acetaminophen, as well as prescription migraine medications, “more than a couple of days a week” can cause rebound headaches, according to the Mayo Clinic. Harvard Health describes the problem as a “vicious cycle”, of which I have been a victim, when “the same medications that initially relieve the headache can trigger subsequent headaches if they are used too often.
Concerns about the link between overuse and increased pain also made headlines this week when a McGill University study published in the journal Science Translational Medicine warned that “clinical data showed that the use of anti-inflammatory drugs was associated with an increased risk of persistent painsuggesting that anti-inflammatory treatments could have negative effects on pain duration.” While the study focused on back pain, the implications for other forms of pain require further investigation.
I’ve been doing everything I can lately to avoid another four-alarm migraine anytime soon. I’m also working on simple day-to-day tweaks to avoid the regular headaches I thought I had to live with, shutting down my laptop a little earlier at night and going to bed earlier. But the biggest change is that I’m trying to open the medicine cabinet less often now, hoping that fewer rattles from the Excedrin bottle might somehow over time lead to fewer times when I feel like reaching for it. .
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