Headaches come in various forms with different causes and side effects. When most people think about headaches, they usually think of the tension variety brought on by hunger, stress, or strained eyes, resulting in a dull but constant ache around the entire head. While it is the most common type of headache, it is nowhere close to the only one — there are more than 150 types of headaches.
A rarer kind, a cluster headache, is perhaps the most painful. It consists of multiple piercing headaches, spans numerous days or weeks, and affects only one side of the head. A migraine, meanwhile, is a neurological disorder causing intense throbbing on one side. While most people only think of it in terms of this associated headache, other symptoms can include nausea, fatigue, vomiting, and sensitivity to light, smells, or sounds.
National Migraine and Headache Awareness Month takes place every June to increase public awareness and knowledge about these conditions. Each year, the National Headache Foundation chooses a new theme. The current one, Advocate for Access, includes commitments to “champion for patient access to care; inform clinicians, so they are able to treat migraine and headache disorders; and ensure access to the therapies to manage migraine disease.”
Headaches are more prevalent than most people realize. The Journal of Headache and Pain found that more than half of adults have at least one headache each year. And more than 39 million people living in the U.S. suffer from migraines, according to the American Migraine Foundation.
However, family nurse practitioner Brandeis Brockman, MSN, and CRNP, says that “fewer than 5% of those affected have been accurately diagnosed and received appropriate care.”
Many affected do not feel that others take their illness seriously. New York City resident Felicia said, “I always feel like I have to prove my pain during migraines, or just suck it up and move along.” Headaches and migraines are often associated with significant personal costs. Shoshana Lipson, a 56 year-old living with migraines, explained that “[m]igraine dictates where I can go and what I can do, and my plans always need to be flexible. Sometimes I can’t be available to my partner or my children.” People who experience migraines also typically experience reduced productivity at school or work, higher healthcare bills, and negative mental health impacts.
Individuals can implement several lifestyle changes and steps to reduce the frequency and manage the pain associated with their headaches. Brockman said, “keeping a migraine or headache journal can also help you to track patterns and identify triggers.”
There are plenty of apps that can help you do just that. Another good option is to join a support group to connect with others going through similar struggles. The Move Against Migraine community on Facebook has more than 30,000 members.
At the same time, healthcare system reforms are necessary for better treatment. The U.S. has fewer than 1,000 headache specialists, and marginalized communities lack access to them. The Coalition for Headache and Migraine Patients (CHAMP) has collected resources to find specialists. Individuals who suffer migraines should also have an easier process to qualify for disability — it took Lipson three years.
Newer and more advanced medications also need to be included in the model of care. Abortive over-the-counter or prescription medications are helpful at the onset of an attack, but preventative prescription medicines are available for those who experience migraines frequently.
The future is more hopeful now than ever before for headache sufferers. “… you had to wait until 2018 for something specific to prevent this disease. So the fact that we now have a number of new drugs, specifically designed to treat a migraine attack or to prevent migraines, means that we know much more about the biology of the disease,” said Dr. David Dodick, M.D.
Nate Shreck, a 17-year-old who has been dealing with migraines for his entire life, said that he recently found a preventative medicine that cut his number of days with migraines down by one-third. His most important advice was to “… stay positive whenever you can. Make the best of the days when you feel good. Find the things that make you happy and do them whenever you can, and always know that living with migraine can be a long road but staying hopeful will help you get through it.”