There is a noise so frequent and familiar in my house, I know it like I know the click of a key in the front door. It’s the dull creak of the medicine cabinet opening, followed by the clink of a giant pill bottle. A few times a week, at least one person in my house has a headache. Do you, too, have a headache right now, even as you read these words? Chances 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 found that every day “15.8% of the world’s population has headaches, and nearly half of these people reported a migraine (7%). The Australian Standard clearly notes that “this means 1.1 billion people have headaches today”. And as the study’s lead author, Lars Jacob Stovner, said in a press release, “the prevalence of head disorders remains high around the world, and the burden of different types may affect many.” .
“Every day, 15.8% of the world’s population suffered from headaches, and almost half of these people reported a migraine.”
Over the years, I had come to take headaches so much for granted in my life that I rarely thought about them. I’m hungry, I eat. I’m tired, I’m resting. I have a headache, I take Excedrin. That’s how the days go, isn’t it? But on a recent afternoon that was far too sunny, I found myself among those 7% of people worldwide who are stricken with a migraine every day. As I closed my eyes and sobbed quietly in the snack bar of a local Target, 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 headaches in the past year, and as Northwestern Medicine reports, they are “more frequent, longer lasting, and more common in women.” We are also much more likely to suffer from migraines. It’s not just COVID-19 that’s knocking acetaminophen off the shelves, it’s our heads.
RELATED: One-fifth of American adults live with chronic pain. Why aren’t we talking about it more?
But are the headaches increasing, or does it feel all the time under our tense faces? The authors of the Norwegian study, who reviewed the results of 357 publications, are cautious about the conclusions to be drawn. They observe that while “headaches remain highly prevalent worldwide” and they “found an apparent increase in the prevalence of migraine”, there is “wide variation between study results”. Populations most sensitized to migraine disorders, for example, unsurprisingly reported a higher prevalence of these.
What seems indisputable, however, is that we create many conditions for ourselves everywhere that cause headaches. We typically spend more than twelve hours a day on our devices, staring at text and inhaling blue light. We ingest a lot of caffeine — 93% of us drink it at least sometimes, and of those who do, 25% of us drink it three or more times a day.
This may be one of the reasons why we sleep less. A 2019 Ball State University study found that 35.6% of people surveyed said they slept less than seven hours a night, with police and health workers saying they got by at five or six o’clock. Those numbers haven’t improved over the past two years – a HealthDay survey earlier this year found that a third of those polled said they were more tired now than when the pandemic started. And 28.5% said they slept less.
Want more health and science stories in your inbox? Subscribe to Salon The Vulgar Scientist’s weekly newsletter.
This brings us to the pandemic in the room. A 2021 study from 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 factor on its own, but then you can make the problem worse by adding whatever stress brings with it. As NPR reported, “Over 40% [of respondents] reported gaining weight during the pandemic. Almost 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 “increased research into the underlying causes of Long Covid and possible ways to treat its symptoms,” including neurological symptoms such as headaches. “I felt like my head was going to explode,” one such patient told CBC in April, “and no medicine was enough to make it better.”
Is it any wonder your head is splitting? I would be surprised if it wasn’t. Yet maybe like me, you’ve become so used to the pain that you’ve normalized it. You don’t have to. My recent migraine reminded me that it shouldn’t get worse before I take my own well-being seriously, and that preventing pain is much less intrusive than a real neurological collapse that kills the weekend. end.
Hormones, illness, vision problems and the legitimate psychological burden of living through this moment in history cannot always be controlled. Of course, persistent, intense, or concerning headaches should be evaluated by a physician. But there are some pretty simple steps we can take to reduce the risk of the typical headaches that plague so many of us, many of whom we’re probably already familiar with.
Here’s the least expected headache blocking tip of all – reconsider how much headache medicine you’re taking.
As the Mayo Clinic advises, get enough sleep. Watch your caffeine intake. Exercise and maintain a regular meal schedule. Work on your stress reduction. These are the basics, but there are others. Cultivate awareness of your own individual triggers. Do certain foods seem to make you angry? Are bright or flashing lights a problem? (It was the main culprit in my last migraine.) But here’s the least expected headache blocking tip of all – reconsider how much headache medicine you’re taking.
Using headache medications, including over-the-counter products like acetaminophen as well as prescription migraine medications, “more than two days a week” can cause rebound headaches, according to the Mayo Clinic. Harvard Health describes the problem as a “vicious cycle,” which I fell prey to, when “the same medications that initially relieve headaches can themselves trigger later headaches if used too often.”
Concerns about the relationship 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 evidence has shown that anti-inflammatory use was associated with an increased risk of persistent pain, suggesting that anti-inflammatory treatments may have negative effects on pain duration.” Although the study focused on back pain, the implications for other forms of pain require further investigation.
I’ve been doing my best lately to avoid another four-alarm migraine any time soon. I’m also working on simple daily tweaks to avoid the regular headaches I thought I had to live with, turning off 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 can somehow lead to less occasions when I want to reach it.
Learn more about pain and how to treat it: