The Headache Clinic
The Headache Clinic

April 12, 2022

Why headaches are so common

If you're someone who is plagued with headaches, you're not alone.

Almost one in six people around the world have a headache on any given day, according to new research by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

Listen to the full interview:

It also revealed that 52 percent of the world's population had a headache in the past year while 7 percent experience migraines daily and 9 percent have a tension-type headache daily.

The Headache Clinic founder Helen Tufui tells Karyn Hay although headaches are prevalent, they're not exactly normal - often it's your body's way of telling you something.

"[Researchers] know people with headache and migraine have a sensitised brain stem and if you can figure out what is sensitising the brain stem then you can get to the underlying cause of what is happening with your headache and migraine."

Tufui herself suffered from daily headaches and was fortunate enough to find the cause. She then went to Australia to conduct some studies and came back to New Zealand and opened her clinics.

While there are more than 300 types of headaches and migraines, an international headache disorder classification recognises certain features which set migraines apart.

But what they both have in common is a sensitised brain stem, Tufui says.

Influences on the brain stem, which is at the base of the brain and connects to the spinal cord, include your posture and use of upper neck and back muscles, she says.

"[Researchers] know that the information from the head itself as well as the information from the structures at the top of the neck enter directly into the brain stem.

"There's increasing evidence for the influence that the upper cervical spine or top of the neck has over that area and that's definitely what we're finding in our clinic as well."

A sensitised brain stem will have a reduced tolerance to events like tiredness, stress, dehydration and hormonal fluctuation, she says.

"You can have a pure trigger of every month, bang on, day one or day before your menstrual cycle, always get a headache or migraine but if you desensitise the brain stem by looking at what's causing that sensitivity then you can reduce that threshold, if you like, in bringing that down."

People with headaches and migraines also have a higher level of inflammation throughout their whole body, she says.

"Some people get huge relief from low inflammatory diets, so they can be things like the keto diet ... ensuring you get sleep can also bring down inflammation levels in the body.

"There's quite a few ways you can tackle it, but really it's trying to dig into what's causing it rather than just reaching for the pills.

"That's okay if you get a headache very infrequently but if you're suffering and you're reaching for the pills day after day, you really want to get to the bottom of what's going on there."

Increased screen time can be a trigger too, she says. Her clinic is seeing more children and adolescents who have developed a bad posture due to screen time, and that ultimately affects the brain stem.

"Kids now are getting a device when they're toddlers.

"They are growing up with a head looking down for such long periods of time at a device and that's having a massive effect on the top of the neck which is then leading to noxious information being sent into the brain stem, creating a sensitivity and resulting in a headache.

"Or for children, it can often be stomach pain or food intolerances as well. There's quite a list that goes in behind all that."

But there is a way to have screen time without the harmful effects on your posture. Tufui recommends looking at your biomechanics and how you're sitting.

"You don't have to sit with your hand on your knee and your face right on top of the phone, bent forward, you can actually sit up tall and just nod your head to look down, like your head actually nods on top of your spine without moving your head and your neck together."

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