By Bunmi Sofola
Throbbing temples, dizziness and blurred visions are some of the major symptoms of headaches – and they’re no fun. Sadly, it’s women who suffer most. Below, Antonia Hoyle, an expert on different types of headaches and their causes reveal how life can be one long headache.
Marriage Mayhem: The not tonight darling, I’ve got a headache excuse has been used by women for generations. But a fascinating study involving 1,000 people from the University of Munster in Germany found that sex can stop headaches, meaning it could be time to think of a new excuse! More than half of migraine sufferers who had sex during an episode experienced an improvement in symptoms, while for one in five, the pain was alleviated altogether. This is thought to be because pain triggers the release of endorphins that works as natural painkillers, presenting something of an enjoyable remedy for many women – providing they can get in the mood in the first place.
However, some headaches can actually be caused by sex. Known as coistal cephalalgia, they affect an unlucky number of women. Some sufferers experience a cramping pain on both sides of the head that begins during arousal and it is thought to be caused by the head and neck muscles contracting prior orgasm, building tension within the skull. Others have an intense burst of pain, an acute migraine – hat begins during orgasm and can last 24 hours. “These severe and thunderclap headaches reach peak intensity within five seconds of orgasm and feel as if your head is being blown off”, says Dr. Steven Allder, consultant neurologist at re-cognitionhealth.com. “They’re terrifying and have an adverse effect on marriage”.
Baby Blues: News of a pregnancy is a joyous occasion. Less worthy of celebration, however, are the blinding headaches that often starts when you’re expecting – 16 percent of women suffer from their first migraine after they’ve conceived. “During pregnancy, levels of the hormone oestrogen rise”, says Dr. Allder. “This seems to stop the brain stem being able to filter sensory information such as light and noise, triggering migraine in some women”. Giving birth might not put a halt to the suffering. Sleep deprivation associated with having children can park even more headaches.
In 2010, researchers from Missouri State University in the U.S. Found that depriving rats of sleep for three consecutive nights made them secrete high level of proteins that stimulate the nervous system potentially prompting migraine. In stressful situations such as sleep deprivation, these arousal proteins occurs at levels that are high enough to trigger pain”, says Allder. “It is easy to see how several nights of interrupted sleep can make people more susceptible to developing chronic pain.
Blame That Job: Who doesn’t think their job is a complete pain at times? For some women, that is literally the case, stress can lead to tension headaches, which affects half of adults, are more common in women than men and feel like a tight, but a usually tolerable, band of pain around the head. These are caused by slouching over your keyboard and focusing on as screen, both of which build pressure in the head muscles. Deadlines can also lead to stress-related teeth-grinding which causes Temporomandibular disorder, in which joints between the lower jaw and the base of the skull become overworked, leading to pain in the temples.
Relying on endless cups of coffee to keep you focused could make matters worse because caffeine contains ‘vasoconstrictive’ qualities – meaning it makes blood vessels in the brain constrict. In itself, this isn’t a problem, but it presents crippling withdrawal symptoms. The body becomes reliant on coffee to modulate the flow of blood and when it goes without, can experience a massive rush of blood to the brain, which increases pressure and leads to headaches.
But never mind, because come 6 pm, you can unwind with a glass of wine, right? Wrong, Ethanol in alcohol inhibits the production of the hormone vasopressin in the brain, making it contract painfully with dehydration.
Hitting The Gym: If you’re looking for an excuse to skip the gym, you are in luck because exercise can cause what is called exertion headaches. For some women, this can occur when they exhaust themselves with strenuous cardiovascular activities or weight training. Felt at the back of the head, or in the temples, these headaches happen when increased heart rate and blood pressure caused by muscle exertion cause the blood vessels in the brain to dilate. This puts pressure on nerves called meninges that cover the brain. Intense at first, they can persist in a dull pain for up to two weeks.
Unfortunately, even after recovery, the meninges – once damaged – remain sensitive, making you more susceptible to these types of headaches happen most often during compound leg movement such as squats, as legs are the largest and strongest part of the body – so more weight is needed to fatigue them. Headaches can also be a sign of an underlying medical condition from an aneurysm to a slipped disc. If you experience this severe kind of headache, you should stop exercising immediately and consult your doctor.
Menopause Misery: As if hot flushes and mood swings weren’t enough, research suggests women suffer up to 60 per cent as many migraines in the years before an during the menopause – though confusingly they often don’t develop headaches at all. Instead, they manifest as neck pain, fatigue and sensitivity to light and noise – symptoms of what is known as ‘aura’ that often precludes a migraine. “I regularly see female patients in their 40s whose migraine has become chronic, meaning they occur on more than 15 days each month in the lead up to the menopause””, says Allder. “Some of these patients have never had a migraine before”.
As with pregnancy, hormonal changes are to blame. Sex hormones, oestrogen and progesterone, and the physical and chemical processes that go towards producing them have a widespread effect on your body. That is why women are three times as susceptible to headaches as men between puberty and menopause.
Sign of Ageing: You’re through the menopause, he children have left home and you’ve retired. You’d think that might bring some respite from the headaches. But, for some, advancing years can make hem worse. As the brain gets older, the blood vessels become less responsive and you start to see different types of headaches. These include hypnic headaches – known as alarm clock headaches because they wake sufferers from their sleep between 1 am and 3 am. They mainly affect women over 50 and lead to dull pain on both sides of the head that typically lasts an hour. More worrying is temporal arthritis, which also mainly affects women over 50 and whose cause is unknown. Blood vessels become inflamed, causing headaches. This is treatable with steroids, but if left untreated, it can cause blindness, strokes an even be fatal.
Do you remember me? (Humour)
Two elderly couples are enjoying a friendly conversation when one of the men turns to the other. “Arthur, I’ve been meaning to ask you”, says the pensioner. “How’s your course at the memory clinic going?” “Outstanding”, replies Arthur. “They teach us all the latest psychological techniques: Visualisation, association and so on. It’s made a huge difference for me.
“That’s great”, says the mate. “What was the name of the clinic again?” Arthur goes blank, then wrinkles his nose. “Wait there, I can do this”. He closes his eyes, and his lips move as he thinks to himself. “What do you call that flower with the red petals and thorns?” he says finally. “You mean a rose,” says his friend. “Yes, that’s it!” says Arthur and turns to his wife. “Rose, what was the name of that clinic?”.