And what we can do about it
I’ve been in lockdown for nearly nine weeks now. Depending on where in the world you are right now, you might have been doing it for weeks longer or a few less. As the days turned into weeks and then the weeks turned into months, I’ve found the period of isolation to be characterised by boredom, anxiety, loneliness and, on the plus side, creativity. And also by a significant increase in headaches. And I’m not alone.
“I’m definitely seeing quite a number of my patients struggling with headaches more than they would do normally,” says Dr Mark Weatherall who specialises in neurology, in particular in the management of headaches and migraines, and ran the Princess Margaret Migraine Clinic at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust for 10 years. It’s no wonder, he says, with the huge societal disruption we’ve experienced to our everyday lives. “Migraines in particular thrive on disruptions to routines,” he says explaining that even the change from long commutes and long hours at the office to working from home and sitting in front of the laptop all day constitutes a major disruption to people’s normal routines. Then there’s the anxiety that the pandemic is causing.
It all comes down to this massive change in all our routines that the lockdown has brought
While anxiety itself doesn’t cause headaches, Dr Weatherall says if you are a person who is prone to headaches, it will often exacerbate the problem. “If we’re anxious, we don’t look after ourselves as well,” he says. “We don’t eat regularly, we don’t sleep well.” Then there’s the fact that we are spending more time sedentary and not exercising as much. We’re drinking more tea and coffee at home as well as drinking more alcohol.
Another one is the increase in screen time on laptops which we are likely to be using in a bad position. Looking down all the time, leaning over, puts strain on the muscles in our neck and the abnormal sensory input from the neck feeds into that bit of the brain that can generate headaches. In essence, he says, it all comes down to this massive change in all our routines that the lockdown has brought.
So what can we do to help the situation? Dr Weatherall says the key is to be a bit boring.
“It's good to have a sensible lifestyle: keep yourself well hydrated, not overdo the caffeine, no more than a couple of caffeinated drinks a day. Eat regular meals, keep to regular sleep habits. Exercise regularly,” he says. “They’re all common sense things but they actually do make a difference for people with tension headaches and migraines in particular.” It’s also important to have a good workspace set up with an elevated screen that is level with your eyes and to take five minute breaks every hour to get up, stretch out, hydrate and get away from the screen.
The key is to be a bit boring
And if you are unable to prevent it and the headache has come on try to treat it nice and early. “Don't let it go too long. You have the best chance of successfully treating the headache at the beginning,” Dr Weatherall says, explaining that painkillers block the processes to start headaches. So start early, take a decent dose and then make sure to hydrate with plenty of water and try to take a break from what you are doing. There is also good evidence, he says, that magnesium, riboflavin (vitamin B2), and co-enzyme Q10 can reduce the frequency of migraines. If over the counter painkillers still aren’t doing the job, have a chat with your GP and get yourself prescribed more specific migraine treatment.
As a note to be aware of, Dr Weatherall also explained that it is possible your headaches are coronavirus-related as a common way that COVID-19 presents in its milder form is through headaches. He says he has seen a number of people with the infection where the main symptom has been very bad headaches for about a week or 10 days.