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Women experience headaches twice as much as men. Here’s why

Headaches are an "underground epidemic," one expert said.

Headaches are a real pain — and headache disorders are surprisingly widespread. In fact, a new study published today in The Journal of Headache and Pain suggests headaches are a common condition that affects people around the globe.

Looking at data from 357 previous studies that measured the prevalence of headache disorders, the researchers found that more than half of the world's population (52%) has one of these conditions, which include migraine and tension-type headaches. Plus, the researchers estimate that nearly 16% of people in the world have a headache on any given day.

"Headaches are, in my opinion, an underground epidemic," Dr. Gayatri Devi, professor of neurology at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra Northwell, told TODAY.

And it's an epidemic that disproportionately affects women. In particular, the new study found that roughly twice as many women experience migraine and frequent headaches (15 or more headache days per month) as men. But, as frustrating and debilitating as headache disorders can be, there are ways to manage the symptoms.

What are common headache disorders?

Headaches can certainly be painful and interfere with your life. But with headache disorders, the pain is just beginning.

"A headache disorder is something that causes a change to your functioning because of persistent headaches that recur," Devi said. And different conditions can come with their own set of symptoms.

"A migraine is your typical one-sided pounding, throbbing pain that is just excruciating," Dr. Lauren Natbony, director at Integrative Headache Medicine of New York, told TODAY. That pain usually gets worse when you try to move, and it might also come with other symptoms, such as nausea or vomiting, as well as temporary changes in vision and difficulty speaking, the Mayo Clinic says. These symptoms can last for hours or days and have a significant effect on patients' lives.

A tension-type headache — what most of us are referring to when we say we have a headache — is less severe than a migraine attack, Natbony explained. "You feel this band of tightness squeezing around your head," she said. "It's mild or moderate and doesn't really interfere with functioning. You might have some sensitivity to light or sound, but there shouldn't be any nausea or vomiting." 

Why do so many women have headache disorders?

There are a few reasons headache disorders are more common among women than men, Devi said. First, hormonal changes play a huge role in headaches and migraine attacks. Some people experience migraine regularly around the time of their period.

"Boys before puberty have a higher incidence of migraines than girls," Natbony explained. But after puberty, the incidence of migraine among girls increases. "After menopause, once estrogen levels drop, you have stable hormones, and the prevalence actually decreases," she said.

Second, women may have different posture issues that contribute to neck and shoulder tension, Devi said. "Your hip bone is connected to your knee bone (and) ankle bone. So, basically, all that gets transferred to your head," she explained. "It causes pain in your neck, which causes tension-type headaches, which can also trigger migraine."

Sleep deprivation and stress can contribute to more frequent headaches, Devi said. Women are more likely to suffer from either than men.

How to cope with headache disorders

If your headaches are affecting your ability to work or have a full life, there are treatment options available. And if you feel like your doctor isn't taking your symptoms seriously, don't be afraid to get a second opinion or to see a specialist for their take.

  • Keep track of your headaches to identify potential triggers. Your triggers could include things like sleep issues, hormonal changes, weather or atmospheric pressure changes, dehydration, skipping meals, neck and shoulder tension, caffeine, alcohol or stress.
  • Do your best to stay comfortable while dealing with a headache. For instance, it often helps to keep loud noises and bright lights to a minimum while dealing with a migraine headache.
  • Talk to your doctor about medications that may help — ideally before things get severe, Natbony advised. Some treatments, like Botox injections or wearable devices, can be used to help prevent migraine headaches. Or your doctor might suggest you take abortive medications, which you can use at the first sign a migraine is occurring to stop it in its tracks.
  • Certain lifestyle modifications, like partaking in regular physical activity and incorporating more plant-based foods into your diet, may help reduce migraine attacks.

If you have a sudden "thunderclap" headache, seek immediate medical attention. These headaches, which often come on quickly with very severe symptoms, could signal a stroke or other medical emergency, Devi said.