Who Is Affected By Headaches?

Headache disorders are one of the most common disorders of the nervous system experienced by a large percentage of the population. The World Health Organization reports that approximately 47% of the adult population suffered from at least one headache in the past year.

There are a wide variety of headache disorders; the three most commonly discussed types of primary headache disorders are tension-type headache, migraine, and cluster headache. Headaches can also occur secondary to other issues in the body, such as medication-overuse headaches. While there are regional variances in the prevalence of headache disorders, headaches do not discriminate. They affect individuals of all ages, races, geographical locations, and income levels.

Even though anyone can be affected by headache disorders, some conditions are more prevalent in certain patient populations. In general, migraine headaches begin during puberty years and then become more frequent between the ages of 35 and 45, with women being affected more often than men.

Tension-type headaches are the most common primary headache disorder. Tension-type headaches usually begin during teenage years and peak in the 40s. Tension-type headaches affect women more often than men (with a 3:2 ratio).

Cluster headaches are relatively uncommon, with one in 1,000 people being affected. This type of headache affects men much more commonly than women (with a 6:1 ratio). Cluster headaches tend to occur in patients who are in their early 20s.

Medication-overuse headache is the most common secondary headache disorder, affecting up to 5% of the population. Women are affected more than men by this type of headache.

What Are The Risk Factors and Causes Of Headaches?

Migraines are believed to be caused by an activation of mechanisms found deep in the brain that lead to the release of inflammatory substances that produce pain around the blood vessels and nerves of the head.

Several risk factors have been identified that increase an individual’s risk of suffering from migraine headaches, including:

  • Family history: Having a family history of migraine headaches dramatically increases your risk
  • Age: While they can begin at any age, most patients have their first migraine attack during adolescence
  • Sex: Women are more likely to suffer from migraines
  • Hormonal changes: Women may find that their migraines occur just before or just after the start of menstruation

The exact cause of cluster headache remains unknown; however, it is believed that abnormalities in the hypothalamus may play a role. The fact that these headaches tend to occur with regularity during a 24 hour period, and that the cluster periods tend to follow the seasons of the year, suggest that the body’s biological clock is somehow involved in this headache disorder, and the body’s biological clock is located within the hypothalamus.

Risk factors for cluster headaches that have been identified include:

  • Family history: Having a parent or sibling with cluster headaches increases the risk of developing this condition
  • Sex: Men are more likely to suffer from this type of headache
  • Age: Even though cluster headaches can begin at any age, individuals between the ages of 20 and 50 are most commonly affected
  • Smoking: Most sufferers are smokers
  • Alcohol: Patients at risk of cluster headaches may have an attack triggered by alcohol use

Tension-type headaches are usually stress-related; however, they may occur because of musculoskeletal issues in the cervical region, eyestrain, or sleep disturbances. Additionally, inflammation may result in physical stress and damage to the nerves and tissues.

Risk factors that have been identified that increase an individual’s risk of suffering from tension-type headaches include:

  • Sex: Women are more likely to suffer from this condition
  • Age: Although this type of headache can occur at any age, it tends to peak in 40s

There are various other factors that can result in headaches, including hunger, dehydration, medication over-use, and psychological issues such as depression and anxiety.

Diagnosing Headaches

Physicians are often able to diagnose primary headache disorders based on the patient’s description of their symptoms. If further information is needed, imaging techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be utilized.

If it is believed that the headache is originating at a specific nerve, it may be possible to confirm this with a diagnostic nerve block. A diagnostic nerve block involves injecting a steroid combined with an anesthetic medication into the area of the suspected affected nerve. If the patient experiences relief, it is probable that the patient suffers from nerve irritation or damage.

Lifestyle Changes To Manage Headaches

Many headache disorders respond positively to simple lifestyle changes. Changes that can be made include:

  • Exercising regularly
  • Improving posture
  • Taking breaks regularly from tasks that put strain on your neck
  • Learning stress management techniques (meditation, yoga, etc.)
  • Getting an appropriate amount of sleep
  • Quitting smoking
  • Drinking in moderation
  • Not overusing pain medication

Treatments For Headaches

Headaches are usually initially treated with over-the-counter analgesics and anti-inflammatory medications. For patients suffering from mild migraines, high dose acetaminophen may be recommended and opioids may be recommended for severe migraine. Anticonvulsant medications, including carbamazepine, topiramate, and gabapentin, may also be used to treat patients with migraines.

Alternative and complementary treatment options are also available for patients suffering from headache disorders. Acupuncture and biofeedback may be recommended for patients suffering with tension-type headache. Furthermore, physical therapy, massage therapy, and chiropractic care may be effective treatment options for those suffering with tension-type headaches, as these headaches are often associated with muscular strain in the cervical region. These techniques aim to relieve the tension that is causing the headache. Further, they may assist in relieving the stress that may be contributing to the headache.

Learn More

If you suffer from headaches and would like more information, please follow the links to the literature below. If you have additional questions or concerns, you are encouraged to speak to your physician and they can provide you with additional information on headache disorders.