On any given day, more than 15% of the world’s population is suffering with a headache, according to a new paper. That means 1.1 billion people have a headache today.
On top of that, 52% of people have a headache disorder (recurrent headaches) every year, 14% of the world endure migraines, and 4.6% have headaches for 15 or more days per month.
The meta-analysis, published in The Journal of Headache and Pain, examined the results of 357 different studies on headache prevalence published between 1961 and 2020.
The researchers scrutinised each of these studies, collected from medical databases, and combined their results in a complex statistical analysis.
Twelve of the studies collected data on whether the participants had had a headache in the last day, which the researchers used to conclude that 15.8% of people have a headache each day.
“We found that the prevalence of headache disorders remains high worldwide and the burden of different types may impact many,” says lead author Lars Jacob Stovner, a professor of neurology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Norway.
“We should endeavour to reduce this burden through prevention and better treatment.”
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While headaches are mostly minor ailments, they’re a public health concern because they’re so common.
“To measure the effect of such efforts, we must be able to monitor prevalence and burden in societies. Our study helps us understand how to improve our methods,” says Stovner.
The researchers also found that headaches were more common in females than males, especially with migraines (17% in females, 8.6% in males) and 15+ days per month of headaches (6% in females, 2.9% in males).
The researchers point out that while their review was global in scope, less headache research has been done in lower and middle-income countries. This means that their results are more influenced by data from wealthy countries.
They’ve also spotted a slight increase in headache prevalence since they last did a review, in 2007.
“Compared to our previous report and global estimates, the data does suggest that headaches and migraines rates may be increasing,” says Stovner.
“However, given that we could explain only 30% or less of the variation in headache estimates with the measures we looked at, it would be premature to conclude headaches are definitively increasing.”
The researchers urge for more studies to be undertaken in low and middle-income countries.
“It may also be of interest in future to analyse the different causes of headaches that varied across groups, to target prevention and treatment more effectively,” says Stovner.
Ellen Phiddian is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a BSc (Honours) in chemistry and science communication, and an MSc in science communication, both from the Australian National University.
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