Why you have a headache right now — and the surprising way you can prevent the next one

There is a sound so common and familiar in my house, I know it as if I knew the click of a key in the front door. It’s the low beeping of the medicine cabinet’s opening, followed by the rattle of a large bottle of pills. A few times a week at least one person in my house has a headache. Do you also have a headache right now, even as you read these words? Chances are you do.

In April, a narrative review from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and published in The Journal of Headache and Pain revealed that every day “15.8% of the world’s population had a headache, and nearly half of those individuals reported a migraine (7% ).” The Australian Standard grimly notes, “that 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 headache disorders remains high worldwide, and the burden of different types can affect many.”

“Every day, 15.8% of the world’s population had headaches, and nearly half of those individuals report migraines.”

Over the years, I had come to take headaches so naturally in my life that I rarely thought much about them. I’m hungry, I’m eating. I’m tired, I’m resting. I get a headache, I take Excedrin. That’s how the days go, right? But on a much too sunny recent afternoon, I found myself among that 7% of people around the world who are affected by migraines every day. As I closed my eyes and sobbed quietly in the snack bar of a local Target, I remembered that just because a condition is common, it’s not inevitable or easily managed.

More than half of us have had headaches in the past year, and as Northwestern Medicine reports, they are “more common, last longer, and more common in women.” We are also much more likely to have migraines. It’s not just COVID-19 that has Acetaminophen flying off the shelves, it’s our heads.

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But do headaches really increase, or does it just feel that way under our tense faces all the time? The authors of the Norwegian study, who reviewed the findings of 357 publications, are hesitant to draw any conclusions. They note that although “headache disorders are common worldwide”, and that they have found “a marked increase in the prevalence of migraines”, there are “great differences between study results”. Populations with greater awareness of migraine disorders, for example, unsurprisingly reported a higher prevalence of it.

What seems indisputable, however, is that we create headache-inducing conditions for ourselves everywhere. We typically spend more than 12 hours a day on our devices, staring at text and breathing blue light. We take in a lot of caffeine – 93% of us consume it at least sometimes, and of those who enjoy it, 25% of us drink it three or more times a day.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons we sleep less. A 2019 Ball State University survey found that 35.6% of respondents said they got less than seven hours of sleep a night, while police officers and health professionals reported getting by in five or six hours. Those numbers haven’t improved in the past two years — a HealthDay survey earlier this year found that a third of respondents said they were more fatigued now than they were at the start of the pandemic. And 28.5% said they slept less.

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This brings us to the pandemic in the room. A 2021 study by the American Psychological Association found that nearly half of those surveyed said they are more stressed now than in previous years. Stress in itself is a source of headaches, but then you can escalate the problem by throwing in anything that involves stress. As NPR has reported, “More than 40% [of respondents] said they had arrived during the pandemic. Nearly a quarter say they drink 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 “more research into the underlying causes of Lung Covid and possible ways to treat its symptoms,” including neurological conditions such as headaches. “My head felt like it was going to explode,” one such patient told the CBC in April, “and no medication was enough to make it better.”

Is it any wonder your head is splitting? I’d be surprised if that wasn’t the case. But maybe, like me, you’ve gotten so used to the pain that you’ve normalized it. Let’s not. My recent migraines reminded me that it shouldn’t get that bad before I take my own well-being seriously, and that preventing pain is a lot less invasive than a full blown, weekend-killing neurological breakdown.

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 otherwise concerning headaches should be evaluated by a physician. But there are fairly simple steps we can take to reduce the risks of the typical headaches that plague so many of us, many of which we probably already know.

Here’s the least-expected headache-blocking trick of all — rethink how much headache medicine you consume yourself.

As the Mayo Clinic advises, get enough sleep. Watch your caffeine consumption. Exercise and maintain a regular eating schedule. Work on your stress reduction. Those are the basics, but there are more. Develop awareness of your own individual triggers. Do certain foods seem to put you off? Are bright or flashing lights a problem? (That was the main culprit for my last migraine.) But here’s the least-expected headache-blocking trick of all — rethink how much headache medication you’re consuming yourself.

Taking headache medications, including over-the-counter products like acetaminophen and prescription migraine medications, “more than a few days a week” can cause rebound headaches, according to the Mayo Clinic. Harvard Health describes the problem as a “vicious cycle,” one that I’ve fallen prey to, when “the same drugs that initially relieve headaches can cause subsequent headaches themselves 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 data showed that use of anti-inflammatory drugs was associated with an increased risk of persistent pain, suggesting that anti-inflammatory treatments may have negative effects on the duration of pain.” While the study focused on back pain, the implications for other forms of pain need to be explored more deeply.

I’ve been trying my best lately to avoid another four-alarm migraine attack anytime soon. I’m also working on simple daily adjustments to stave off 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 now try to open the medicine cabinet less often, in the hope that less chatter from the Excedrin bottle will somehow make me feel less inclined to reach for it.

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