Headaches: are you one of the one in six people suffering today?

Study finds 7% of global population experience migraine and 9% a tension-type headache on any given day

woman with a headache

Almost one in six people around the world have a headache on any given day, with about half of those experiencing a migraine, researchers have found.

Headache disorders can be painful and debilitating and have myriad causes, from stress to over-use of medications such as painkillers. Now a large scale review has highlighted just how common such conditions are.

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“Headaches are really, really frequent disorders, [and] very prevalent in all countries – although there may be differences,” said Prof Lars Jacob Stovner, first author of the research from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

Stovner and colleagues identified 357 papers published between 1961 and the end of 2020. While these covered different countries, different time periods and often used different approaches, the team were able to analyse the data to explore the prevalence of headache disorders around the world.

The results, published in the Journal of Headache and Pain, suggest more than half of the world’s population – 52% – have an active headache disorder, typically described as experiencing some type of headache during the past year.

Further analysis revealed that just under 16% of people around the world had a headache on any given day. While many of the studies did not report the type of headache involved, those that did suggested about 7% of the global population experience migraine on any given day, and almost 9% experience a tension-type headache.

The review also highlighted that the prevalence of headache disorders differed by sex, with 17% of women affected by migraine in a given year, compared with 8.6% of men. Headaches for 15 or more days a month were also much more common in women.

Stovner said the overall findings chime with previous estimates of headache prevalence, including the Global Burden of Disease study.

However, the study suggests migraines may have become more common since the team’s last review in 2007 – a finding the authors note is not conclusive, as it may be down to factors such as, for example, more sensitive diagnostic questionnaires.

They add that apparent differences between countries are also speculative as the findings may depend upon how the studies are carried out.

Stovner’s team previously revealed that migraine was the leading cause of disability for under-50s,.

“Many other pains in the body, they are increasing when we approach retirement. But migraines and headaches are most prevalent in the most active years,” said Stovner, who works with the Global Campaign against Headache.

Stovner added that headache disorders can be down to multiple factors, from an individual’s genetics to stress, sleep problems and overuse of medication, adding that options are available to both prevent headache disorders or treat them when they occur.

“This is something the health services have to take seriously. We must inform the public, the decision makers, the health services … about this very big public health problem,” he said.

Peter Goadsby, professor of neurology at King’s College London and an expert in migraine, who was not involved in the research, said conditions such as migraine were disabling and horrible for those who experience them, adding that there needed to be not only more recognition of headache but also action.

“We need more treatments and, frankly, Europe just needs the treatments now available in the US for a starter,” he said, adding there also needs to be investment in research. “Research council investment is pitiful and embarrassing when you think it is the migraineurs who [are] a good chunk of current taxpayers.”


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