It may throb, throb, or whine, but either way, a headache is pretty annoying, and unfortunately, it is also a widespread problem. On any given day, about one in six people worldwide suffer from it. Half of them even struggle with migraines. That shows a new large study from Norway.
“Oh, it’s just a headache.” Many people who suffer from this ailment, wave it away. They keep walking around with it, they keep working and often don’t go to the doctor. In short, it is an underestimated problem. So says professor and neurologist Lars Jacob Stovner (Norwegian University of Science and Technology). “Headaches are really, really common. It is one of the most common and most burdensome conditions worldwide.”
Together with his colleagues, he researched it. They studied 357 scientific papers, which were released between 1961 and the end of 2020. All those studies come from different countries and corners of the world, and used different research methods. By analyzing all the data in detail, Stovner was able to determine the prevalence.
In other words: how many people worldwide suffer from headaches. The answer: a lot. More than half of the population — 52 percent, to be exact — has struggled with headaches in the past year. On any given day, one in six suffers from a pounding head. The findings of Stovner et al. were published in the scientific journal ‘The Journal of Headache and Pain’.
Headaches are, of course, a broad term, so they come in different forms. Very often, tension headaches are involved, Stovner says, where it feels like a strap is being tightened around your forehead and back. In half of the cases, it is a migraine. Such a migraine attack can best be compared with a short circuit in the head. The ordinary sound then takes on the intensity of hellish noise, and light suddenly becomes unbearable.
A women’s problem
Stovner and his colleagues also discovered an important gender difference. Each year, 17 percent of women are affected by migraines, compared to 8.6 percent of men. Hormones are suspected to play a role in the condition. “Estrogen in particular would be an important factor,” neurologist and headache specialist Gisela Terwindt said earlier.
“Women also suffer more, by the way. Their attacks last longer than men’s and are more violent. They also benefit less from medication and suffer from more side effects.” Exactly how the fork sits in the stem has never been investigated. “It is high time to find out where those differences come from,” says Prof. Terwindt. “And above all: how the brain disease can be treated better.”
Stover agrees. According to his research, there is an increase in the number of people affected by migraine attacks. And that is problematic, the professor fears. “Migraine is one of the leading causes for people under the age of 50 who (temporarily) stop working.”
Stovner’s research also indicated that headaches could have a range of different causes. Stress is and remains a major culprit, but also sleeping problems or the excessive use of medicines. “Headaches, in whatever form, should be taken seriously. We need to inform people, policy and health services about this growing problem.”