This Is Why You're Getting Way More Headaches Than Usual
Experts explain what's going on with your head and what you can do about the pain.
We can all agree that 2020 has been one big headache of a year, but for some, this sentiment is rather literal. During the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, headache experts have noticed a 20% increase in the number of headaches and migraines reported due to increased levels of stress and a number of lifestyle changes. Charisse Litchman, M.D., FAHS—a neurologist, headache specialist, and medical advisor to Nurx—tells HelloGiggles that she's seen these reports from those who already suffered from migraines or headaches pre-pandemic and from those who didn't. She calls the pandemic a "perfect storm" for headaches, explaining that fluctuations in stress, hormones, diet, sleep patterns, and increased screen time—in other words, everything we've been experiencing this past year—can all be triggers.
With wintertime upon us, there's yet another reason for increased headaches. "We're seeing less sunlight, which means less melatonin, which means less serotonin in the system," Dr. Litchman explains. Fluctuation in serotonin, along with other hormones like estrogen, can trigger migraines.
While there's a long list of reasons why we may be experiencing more headaches right now, Dr. Litchman says it's important to pay close attention to your symptoms and not dismiss them. Headaches that wake you from sleep, worsen when chewing food, or cause fainting or seizures could be indicators of a more serious underlying health condition; these are known as secondary headaches. (You can find more red flags of secondary headaches here.) Headaches have also been identified as a symptom of coronavirus, so make sure to consult a doctor if you are noticing any other symptoms out of the norm.
According to WebMD, however, nine out of 10 headaches are primary headaches, which aren't tied to a specific disease or condition. Primary headaches—which include tension headaches, migraines, and cluster headaches—can be preventable and treatable through lifestyle changes and specialized care. Keep reading below for expert advice on keeping headaches away and treating them when they show up.
How to get rid of a headache:
1. Keep a consistent and healthy routine.
Rami Burstein, Ph.D., a professor of neuroscience at Harvard Medical School and the inventor and cofounder of the Allay Lamp, explains that the migraine-prone brain is different than the non-migraine-prone brain. The migraine-prone brain "is more sensitive to any changes in homeostasis, any deviation from the norm," Dr. Burstein says. In simpler words, any changes in a migraine-prone person's daily routine—including when they wake up and go to bed, how much they sleep, and when and how much they eat—can trigger a migraine. To prevent headaches, those who suffer from migraines should be diligent in keeping a consistent routine, says Dr. Burstein. For example, "They should eat the same number of meals, the same amount of food every day, at the same interval every day," he says.
As Dr. Burstein explains, someone who isn't migraine-prone is more able to skip a meal or lose some sleep without consequence. However, if you're experiencing headaches of any kind, keeping a consistent routine is a great place to start.
2. Stay in tune with your emotions.
Just as changes in sleep and diet can mess with your body's routine, Dr. Burstein says stress is "a deviation of emotional homeostasis," so it's important to relax and reduce stress for migraine prevention, too. "I know it's easy to say and difficult to do, but it's necessary," he adds.
In addition to stress, Dr. Litchman also explain that depression and anxiety can lead to headaches—and vice versa. So, taking care of your mental health is also an important part of migraine prevention and treatment. (Browse affordable mental healthcare options here, or read everything you need to know about starting teletherapy here.) "What I've found is that not only does anxiety cause headaches and headaches cause anxiety, but not having a plan makes everything worse," Dr. Litchman explains. So, instead of trying to resolve your headaches on your own or just hoping you can "power through" (a dangerous mindset that stands in the way of self-care), talk with a medical professional to create a plan of action for treating and preventing your headaches.
3. Reduce your exposure to blue light.
Research shows that blue light can cause and worsen headaches and migraines, and with many of us spending an increased amount of time staring at screens this year, we're getting more exposure than ever. While the brain has the highest sensitivity to blue light, which explains all the blue-light-blocking glasses on the market, Dr. Burstein explains that it's not the only color of light that we should worry about.
"Blue and yellow and red light generate large electrical signals in the retina," he says, "and these electrical signals go to multiple areas in the brain and excite it [and] make it more active than it should be," which can cause and worsen headaches. From his research, Dr. Burstein found that a narrow band of green light, on the other hand, actually has the opposite, calming effect on the brain and can be used in the treatment and prevention of migraines. This led him to develop the Allay Lamp, which emits green light designed to soothe the brain.
If you're willing and able to invest the $149, this lamp can be incorporated into your daily life by turning it on for about two hours every day to help keep migraines away. The lamp is intended to help users continue on with their work and other daily tasks as usual without having to retreat to a dark room when a migraine comes on. The narrow band of green light in the lamp sends a much smaller signal than the other colors in everyday light, so it soothes rather than irritates the brain and allows migraine sufferers to be around light without experiencing sensitivity and pain. If you can't get your hands on some green light, however, it's best to try to limit your screen time as much as possible and take breaks to get up and walk around instead of keeping your eyes glued to your phone or laptop all day long.
4. Go to a specialized headache doctor.
Nurx, a digital practice for women's health, conducted a survey of 441 patients and found that, of those who experience migraines, nearly one in two said they have had their headache symptoms dismissed by a doctor, and one in four have experienced a lack of support from their friends and family members. This dismissal can, in part, be attributed to sex-based discrimination in health care and the fact that migraines disproportionately affect female bodies. According to The Migraine Research Foundation, people who menstruate are three times more likely to experience migraines than those who don't, largely due to hormonal changes.
In a culture that's overly consumed with productivity, headaches and migraines don't exactly fit on the calendar, so some people may end up dismissing their own symptoms or feel dismissed by coworkers when they need to take a break. However, as anyone who's experienced them knows, migraines aren't something you can simply ignore—and you shouldn't try to, either. If you aren't getting proper care from a primary healthcare provider or just want more dedicated attention to your symptoms, both Dr. Burstein and Dr. Litchman recommend looking up a headache clinic near you and seeing a specialized headache doctor.
To make it easier to consult with a headache specialist, Nurx developed a new online service dedicated to headache and migraine treatment. Through the service, you can get virtual consultations with a headache specialist to develop a personalized treatment plan and get prescriptions delivered to you without ever having to leave the house.
No matter what form of care you choose to seek out, it's worth advocating for yourself and your headaches—whether you do so virtually or in person.