Throbbing temples, dizziness and blurred vision — whatever your symptoms, one thing’s for sure: headaches are no fun.
And it’s women who suffer most.
A report released this week found that British women are twice as likely to suffer from headaches as men — with 15.8 per cent of women, compared to 8.2 per cent of men, reporting chronic pain.
And women suffer a mind-boggling variety at every stage of their lives. Here, ANTONIA HOYLE reveals how life can be one long headache . . .
1. MARRIAGE MAYHEM
The ‘not tonight darling, I’ve got a headache’ excuse has been used by women for generations.
But a fascinating study involving 1,000 people from the University of Munster in Germany found that sex can stop headaches, meaning it could be time to think of a new excuse.
More than half of migraine sufferers who had sex during an episode experienced an improvement in symptoms, while for one in five, the pain was alleviated altogether.
This is thought to be because pain triggers the release of endorphins that work as natural painkillers, presenting something of an enjoyable remedy for many women — providing they can get in the mood in the first place.
However, some headaches can actually be caused by sex. Known as coital cephalalgia, they affect an unlucky 1 per cent of the population.
Some sufferers experience a cramping pain on both sides of the head that begins during arousal and is thought to be caused by the head and neck muscles contracting prior to orgasm, building tension within the skull.
Others have an intense burst of pain — an acute migraine — that begins during orgasm and can last 24 hours.
‘These severe and sudden thunderclap headaches reach peak intensity within five seconds of orgasm and feel as if your head is being blown off,’ says Dr Steven Allder, consultant neurologist at re-cognitionhealth.com.
‘They are terrifying and have an adverse effect on a marriage.’
2. BABY BLUES
News of a pregnancy is a joyous occasion. Less worthy of celebration, however, are the blinding headaches that often start when you are expecting — 16 per cent of women suffer from their first migraine after they’ve conceived.
‘During pregnancy, levels of the hormone oestrogen rise,’ says DrAllder. ‘This seems to stop the brain stem being able to filter sensory information such as light and noise, triggering migraines in some women.’
Giving birth might not put a halt to the suffering. Sleep deprivation associated with having children can spark even more headaches.
In 2010, researchers from Missouri State University in the U.S. found that depriving rats of sleep for three consecutive nights made them secrete high levels of proteins that stimulate the nervous system, potentially prompting migraines.
‘In stressful situations such as sleep deprivation, these arousal proteins occur at levels that are high enough to trigger pain,’ says lead researcher Paul L. Durham. ‘It is easy to see how several nights of interrupted sleep can make people more susceptible to developing a chronic pain.’
3. Blame that job
Who doesn’t think their job is a complete pain at times? For some women that is literally the case.
Stress can lead to tension headaches, which affect half of adults, are more common in women than men and feel like a tight, but usually tolerable, band of pain around the head.
‘These are caused by slouching over your keyboard and focusing on a screen — both of which build pressure in the head muscles,’ says Dr Tatiana Lapa, a GP.
Deadlines can also lead to stress-related teeth grinding, which causes Temporomandibular disorder, in which joints between the lower jaw and the base of the skull become overworked, leading to pain in the temples.
Relying on endless cups of coffee to keep you focused could make matters worse because caffeine contains ‘vasoconstrictive’ qualities — meaning it makes blood vessels in the brain constrict. In itself this isn’t a problem, but it presents crippling withdrawal symptoms.
‘The body becomes reliant on coffee to modulate the flow of blood and when it goes without we can experience a massive rush of blood to the brain, which increases pressure and leads to headaches,’ says Dr Lapa.
But never mind, because come 6pm, you can unwind with a glass of wine, right? Wrong. Ethanol in alcohol inhibits the production of the hormone vasopressin in the brain, making it contract painfully with dehydration.
4. Hitting the gym
If you’re looking for an excuse to skip the gym, you’re in luck because exercise can cause what are called exertion headaches.
For some women, these can occur when they exhaust themselves with strenuous cardiovascular activities or weight training.
Felt at the back of the head or in the temples, these headaches happen when increased heart rate and blood pressure caused by muscle exertion cause the blood vessels in the brain to dilate.
This puts pressure on nerves called meninges that cover thebrain.
Intense at first, they can persist as a dull pain for up to two weeks.
Unfortunately, even after recovery, the meninges — once damaged — remain sensitive, making you more susceptible to these types of headaches in the future. Poor exercise technique increases the risk.
‘The headaches happen most often during compound leg movement such as squats, as legs are the largest and strongest part of the body — so more weight is needed to fatigue them,’ says fitness trainer Pola Pospieszalska.
‘Headaches can also be a sign of an underlying medical condition from an aneurysm to a slipped disc. If you experience this severe kind of headache, you should stop exercising immediately and consult your doctor.’
5. MENOPAUSE MISERY
As if hot flushes and mood swings weren’t enough, research suggests women suffer up to 60 per cent as many migraines in the years before and during the menopause — though confusingly, they often don’t develop headaches at all.
Instead they manifest as neck pain, fatigue and sensitivity to light and noise — symptoms of what is known as an ‘aura’ that often precludes a migraine.
‘I regularly see female patients in their 40s whose migraine has become chronic, meaning they occur on more than 15 days each month in the lead up to the menopause,’ says Dr Nick Silver, a consultant neurologist from the Walton Centre NHS Foundation Trust in Liverpool.
‘Some of these patients have never had a migraine before.’
As with pregnancy, hormonal changes are to blame.
‘Sex hormones, oestrogen and progesterone, and the physical and chemical processes that go towards producing them have a widespread effect on your body,’ says Dr Lapa.
‘That is why women are three times as susceptible to headaches as men between puberty and themenopause.’
6. Sign of ageing
You’re through the menopause, the children have left home and you’ve retired. You’d think that might bring some respite from headaches. But, for some, advancing years can make them worse.
‘As the brain gets older, the blood vessels become less responsive and you start to see different types of headache,’ says Dr Allder.
These include hypnic headaches — known as alarm clock headaches because they wake sufferers from their sleep between 1am and 3am. They mainly affect women over 50, and lead to a dull pain on one or both sides of the head that typically lasts an hour.
More worrying is temporal arthritis, which also mainly affects women over 50 and whose cause is unknown. Blood vessels become inflamed, causing headaches.
‘This is treatable with steroids, but if left untreated, it can cause blindness, strokes and even be fatal,’ says Dr Allder.
A Swedish study in 2002 found that women aged between 60 and 74 were more likely to continue having migraines if they had suffered from depression.
Unfortunately, when it comes to headaches, our emotions will always be an inescapable factor.