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What causes headaches? - Dan Kwartler


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In ancient Greece, the best-known remedy for a long-standing headache was to drill a small hole in the skull to drain supposedly infected blood. Fortunately, doctors today don’t resort to power tools to cure headaches, but we still have a lot to learn about this ancient ailment. Dan Kwartler shares what we know (and don't know) about headaches.

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While a tension headache is the most common primary headache condition, migraines aren’t far behind. They affect more than 37 million people every year in the United States alone. Moreover, the impact of migraines on quality of life far outweighs that of tension headaches. People suffering from migraine attacks often experience intense light and sound sensitivity, regularly rendering them unable to work, socialize, or even seek treatment. Coupled with severe nausea, these attacks can be incapacitating. More than half of those who suffer from migraines endure these headaches once or twice a month for periods of up to three days.

But despite their ubiquity and severity, there is a lot of social stigma surrounding migraines. As is the case with many “invisible” health issues, such as mental health disorders, people suffering from migraines are expected to power through their crippling pain. Employers tend not to appreciate the severity of these headaches, labeling the migraine-afflicted as "lazy" or "flakey" when they can’t show up for work. You can find out more about migraine stigma here, and start educating others about the seriousness of migraine pain.

While tension headaches and many secondary headaches can often be treated with anti-inflammatories—you can learn more about how those pain-relievers work in this TED-Ed lesson—migraines require a different class of treatment. Our current medicinal approach involves a class of drugs called Triptans, which inhibit blood vessel swelling and curb further pain responses from hypersensitive nocioceptors. However, these drugs help manage pain for only about 50% of migraine sufferers—and usually it’s only a partial relief. Other common treatments include calcium channel blockers to ease hypertension, beta-blockers to lower blood pressure, and occasionally opioids, like codeine, for pain relief in extreme cases. But unfortunately, these drugs also only affect around half of the migraine-suffering population. Due to their low efficacy rates, doctors have turned to surprising new treatments, ranging from injections designed to suppress dangerous neuropeptides to Botox shots meant to relieve cranial pressure. For more information on upcoming migraine treatments and news, you can follow the American Migraine Foundation.

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TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Dan Kwartler
  • Director Sharon Colman
  • Composer Miguel d'Oliveira
  • Associate Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott, Elizabeth Cox
  • Content Producer Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Producer Alex Rosenthal
  • Narrator Addison Anderson

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