How common are headaches?

Online Q&A
Updated February 2014

Q: How common are headaches?

A: Headaches are extremely common. Nearly everyone has a headache occasionally. When they occur repeatedly, they are a symptom of a headache disorder. The most common headache disorder is tension-type headache. In developed countries, tension-type headache affects over one third of men and over one half of women. Recent studies suggest the same in developing countries. Less well recognized is the toll of headache disorders characterized by very frequent headache: up to 1 adult in 20 has a headache every – or nearly every – day.

Migraine is also very common affecting at least 1 adult in every 7 in the world. It occurs across all continents, but for reasons not yet known appears to be somewhat less common in the Far East. It is up to 3 times more common in women than men, a pattern seen everywhere. This difference is hormonally-driven. Migraine has been better studied than other headache disorders. Often starting at puberty, migraine most affects those aged between 35 and 45 years but can trouble much younger people, including children.

Headache disorders are painful and disabling. They can cause substantial personal suffering, impaired quality of life and high financial cost. Repeated headache attacks – and often the constant fear of the next one – can affect family life, social life and employment. Despite this, many people – including many health care professionals – tend to perceive headache as a minor or trivial complaint. As a result, the physical, emotional, social and economic burdens of headaches are poorly acknowledged.

For the vast majority of people suffering from headache, effective treatment requires no expensive equipment, tests or specialists. Headache disorders are mostly, and rightly, managed in primary health care. The essential components of effective management are awareness of the problem, correct diagnosis, avoidance of mismanagement, appropriate lifestyle modifications and informed use of cost-effective pharmaceutical remedies.

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