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SCIENCE IN THE NEWS - June 25, 2002: Headaches - 2002-06-24


This is Sarah Long.


And this is bob doughty, with science in the news, a VOA Special English program about recent developments in science. Today we discuss treatments for three different kinds of a common disorder.



Recently, three people working for the same organization began suffering from severe pain in their heads on the same day. Such pain is known as a headache. In each of the three people, the cause of the headache was different.

One person had a migraine headache, another had a cluster headache. The third worker had a tension headache. Several years ago, these three people might have suffered severe pain for some time before their headaches ended. On this day, however, each one used a different treatment that either reduced the pain or ended it.


People who get migraine headaches get them repeatedly -- month after month, year after year. Some of them say they have difficulty seeing before the severe pain begins. Others cannot see at all when the headaches begin. Some may have difficulty thinking. Others see strange lights in front of their eyes. Many have upset stomachs and cannot keep food down.

Seventy-five percent of those who get migraine headaches are women. In the United States, one of every five women gets migraine headaches.

Doctor Glen Solomon is a headache expert at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. Doctor Solomon says migraine headaches cost a great deal in human suffering. He says they also cause major financial losses because migraine sufferers are unable to work when they get the headaches. Doctor Solomon says the average migraine patient is between twenty-five and fifty-five years old.


Carolyn is a person who suffers from migraine headaches. For many years Carolyn's life was limited because of repeated migraine headaches. Her story is similar to many who suffer such headaches.

Other members of her family had the same problem. That is true of ninety percent of migraine patients. Researchers believe that parents can pass the problem of migraine headaches to their children.

Carolyn had her first migraine headache when she was a young adult. It was so severe that she remained in bed for sixteen hours. During that time she could not eat. She could not keep food in her stomach. She says the pain was on one side of her head. It felt as if someone had struck her with a heavy stick. For a while Carolyn thought she would die.

The next day, Carolyn felt better. Sadly, however, it was only the beginning of her experience with migraine headaches. She began to have the headaches every month.


Doctors ordered medicines for her that were designed to reduce pain. They also suggested she make some changes in her life. They told Carolyn to stop eating chocolate and cheese. They told her to stop drinking alcohol. She was advised not to sleep late in the morning -- even if she needed more rest. The doctors told her not to look at bright lights. They also told her to avoid being angry or sad.

The pain medicine helped reduce Carolyn's pain. However, it also made her want to sleep. She had to plan all her activities around the headaches.

Recently, all that changed for Carolyn. She began taking the drug flurbiprofen (floor-by-'pro-fin). Now she can eat and drink what she wants. And she can sleep late if she needs more rest.


Doctor Solomon says flurbiprofen provides a new life to those who suffer from migraine headaches. It can be taken every day to prevent the headaches from starting. Or it can be taken to reduce pain after the headaches begin. Doctors must order flurbiprofen for their patients with migraine headaches.

The United States Food and Drug Administration approved the first medicine for migraine headaches that people can buy without a doctor’s order. It is called Excedrin Migraine. It contains the common medicines aspirin and acetaminophen to ease pain. It also contains caffeine, a substance found in coffee and chocolate.


Doctors believe that most migraine headaches begin when blood passages in the brain begin to enlarge. Caffeine helps the blood passages reduce to their normal size.


Developments in medicine have not yet helped Richard, who suffers from cluster headaches. People who get this kind of headache say they almost would choose to die instead of suffering the pain they experience. However, like Carolyn, Richard is living a more normal life because of new medicine.

Doctors say cluster headaches most often strike men who are more than thirty years old. About one person in every thousand people gets the headaches. Richard was thirty-seven when he had his first cluster headache.


Richard says he felt a terrible pain in his face, around one of his eyes. He says the pain felt as if someone was stabbing him in the eye with a knife. After several hours the pain stopped. But soon he had another headache. Then he had another. Some lasted only thirty minutes. Others lasted as long as three hours.

Like other victims of cluster headaches, Richard had them in a series each time. Sometimes he had no headaches for months. Then he would have another series of headaches causing severe pain.

It was suggested that the headaches might be caused by worrying or emotional problems. Yet, Richard could not find any connection between unpleasant events in his life and the cluster headaches. He could not link them to anything he ate or drank.


For several years, doctors tried different drugs to treat Richard's headaches. The most effective treatment was a chemical called capsaicin. Capsaicin is found in red peppers. It gives the peppers a hot, spicy taste.

Doctor Solomon says that the chemical is partly effective in stopping the series of headaches. He says the patient places capsaicin in his or her nose when the headache starts. The treatment causes some brief pain. However, the cluster headaches do stop, and capsaicin does not cause the possibly harmful side effects of other treatments.


A tension headache is not so severe as a migraine headache or as cluster headaches. Still, tension headaches interfere with the lives of many Americans especially women. A study says women are fifteen percent more likely to get tension headaches than men.

Pain from tension headaches usually affects both sides of a person's head. Muscles in the neck, face, jaws or shoulders may become extremely tight. Common anti-pain medicines often can reduce the effects of tension headaches. Yet, there is good reason to seek medical help if this kind of headache continues and is severe.

Doctor Solomon says the cause of tension headaches may be chemical depression.

People who suffer from tension headaches sometimes have difficulty sleeping or remembering things. They also may feel very sad and have difficulty keeping their minds on what they are doing. These problems also describe the condition of people suffering from emotional depression.


For many years, Clare had tension headaches repeatedly. Sometimes they could be cured by rest and the anti-pain drug aspirin. However, there were times when nothing helped reduce Clare's headache pain. She had difficulty remembering things, and could work for short periods only.

Finally, Clare spoke to her doctor about the problem. The doctor ordered tests. After studying the test results, the doctor suggested she take small amounts of a thyroid substance. The thyroid is an organ found in the neck. It produces hormones that control the chemical and physical processes of the body.

The thyroid substance helped reduce the pain of Clare's headaches. Although the headaches are not completely gone, Clare is now able to work for long periods. Also, her headaches interfere less with her ability to remember.


Everyone has a headache at one time or another. Pain can be caused by many different problems. These could be eye difficulties, or blood problems. Headaches also can be the result of life-threatening conditions such as bleeding in the brain or a cancerous growth in the head. Doctors say a person should seek medical help if headaches happen often, or are especially severe.



This science in the news program was written by Jerilyn Watson and Shelley Gollust. This is bob doughty.


And this is Sarah Long. Join us again next week for more news about science in Special English, on the Voice of America.