More than half the world has a headache disorder

Not only is the incidence of headaches and migraines on the rise, but researchers also found that women are more impacted than men.

Maija Kappler 4 minute read April 19, 2022
Depression, headache, sadness concept

Getting more than 15 headaches a month is more common in women and girls than boys and men. GETTY

Headache disorders are among the most common conditions in the world: over 50 per cent of the world’s population has some form of headache disorder, according to a new review published in The Journal of Headache and Pain.

“Compared to our previous report and global estimates, the data does suggest that headaches and migraines rates may be increasing,” the study’s co-author Lars Jacob Stovner said in a press release — although he acknowledges that it’s too soon to say that definitively. “What is clear is that overall, headache disorders are highly prevalent worldwide and can be a high burden.”

Researchers from the neuromedicine department of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology examined data about headaches from 357 publications. Since they started their work in early 2021, data up to the end of 2020 was included. The earliest studies they looked at came from 1967. A lot of the data focused on specific age groups, and included people as young as five and as old as “over 65.” The information came mostly from high-income countries with “good healthcare systems.”

They found that every day, 15.8 per cent of the world’s population had some form of a headache, and seven per cent had a migraine — five per cent of people had headaches for 15 or more days per month.

But the problem isn’t a superficial one: more than half of all people — 52 per cent — have some form of a headache disorder. The problem affects more women than men: 58 per cent of women around the world have headache disorders, compared to 44 per cent of men.

Tension-type headache (TTH) disorders were the most common, impacting 27 per cent of women and 23 per cent of men. Tension headaches cause a dull, steady ache rather than a throbbing one, and generally affect both sides of the head, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. The pain involved in a tension headache is typically mild to moderate, rather than severe.

Many people get occasional tension headaches, but it can be somewhat complicated to get diagnosed with tension headache disorder. There are both primary TTH disorders and secondary ones, where the headache is the result of another condition. And many people suffer from both tension headaches and migraines, so it isn’t always clear which diagnosis is more accurate. Generally, tension headaches are considered episodic when they occur for less than 15 days per month, and chronic when they happen more than 15 times a month.

Why headache disorders are more common in women

Migraines, meanwhile, had a large gender gap: they occurred in nine per cent of men, but 17 per cent of women, with a global average of 14 per cent. A migraine typically occurs on just one side of the head, and usually involves what feels like pulsing or throbbing, according to the Mayo Clinic. Migraines cause pain that’s quite severe, and can be accompanied by nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light and sound. In some cases, they are accompanied by an aura — some kind of warning sign that a migraine is coming on, like a flash of light or tingling in one side of the arm or face. People who are susceptible to migraines generally get them throughout their lives.

Getting more than 15 headaches a month, too, is more common in women and girls than boys and men: it happens to six per cent of women and three per cent of men.

One of the reasons for the gender discrepancy is hormones, which are a common cause of headaches and migraines, and many people experience headaches around the time they get their period.

“Boys before puberty have a higher incidence of migraines than girls,” Dr. Lauren Natbony, director at Integrative Headache Medicine of New York, told NBC News. But after puberty, migraines in girls increase, and “after menopause, once estrogen levels drop, you have stable hormones, and the prevalence actually decreases.”

Posture issues, sleep deprivation and stress — all of which are more common in women — can also lead to headaches.

Stovner, co-author of the study, hopes other researchers will look into more of the factors that cause headaches.

“It may also be of interest in future to analyze the different causes of headaches that varied across groups to target prevention and treatment more effectively,” he said.

Maija Kappler is a reporter and editor at Healthing. You can reach her at mkappler@postmedia.com
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