Millions of people suffer from headaches every year, with the discomfort ranging from a mild irritation to agonising pain that leaves them bedbound.

But a study of 2,900 headache sufferers revealed that for one in 10, the burning, piercing or throbbing sensation occurs ‘mainly in the face’. 

Scientists from the University of Hamburg hope understanding the difference between facial pain and headaches will lead to new treatments.  

One in 10 headache sufferers 'mainly feel the pain in their face', research suggests (stock)

One in 10 headache sufferers 'mainly feel the pain in their face', research suggests (stock)

One in 10 headache sufferers ‘mainly feel the pain in their face’, research suggests (stock)

‘Facial pain has not been well recognised as a symptom of headache, and some people end up waiting a long time for a proper diagnosis and treatment,’ lead author Dr Arne May said.

‘This study shows facial pain is not uncommon and for many people their pain occurs mainly in the face, not the head.

‘For a better understanding of these types of facial pain and ultimately for the development of treatments, it’s crucial we understand more about facial pain.

‘[This includes knowing] whether it is the same disease as the headache, but showing up in a different place, or whether they are two different syndromes.’

Around half of all adults around the world have suffered from at least one headache in the past year, according to the World Health Organization. 

As well as causing personal suffering, headaches have been linked to anxiety, financial loss and unemployment. A person’s family and social life may also be affected. 

The pain of migraine

  • Migraines are caused by a complex neurological condition which can affect the whole body – causing crippling headaches, nausea, blackouts, vomiting and even paralysis.
  • Roughly 8.5million people in Britain suffer from migraines, three quarters of them women, with attacks lasting between four and 72 hours.
  • Sufferers experience an average of 13 attacks each year, usually in clusters or episodes of a few days.
  • But for about half a million people – those with ‘chronic migraines’ – the attacks come at least every other day.
  • Migraines are the sixth most common cause of disability around the world, and are strongly linked to depression and work absenteeism.
  • Current drugs include Triptans – which deal with the symptoms but not the cause – but if they are taken too often they actually increase the frequency of attacks.
  • Other treatments which ward off attacks are all designed for other conditions – such as botox, epilepsy medicines and beta blockers for heart disease.
  • The new drug works in a completely different way – attacking the cause of migraines by stopping a protein which causes blood vessels to swell in the brain.

To understand the type of pain patients endure, the researchers looked at 2,912 people who claimed to have primary headaches. These are headaches that do not occur as a result of an underlying condition.

The participants completed a questionnaire about their headaches and any other pain.

Results – published in the journal Neurology – revealed 291 (10 per cent) of them suffered from facial pain.  

This was most common in the 20 people with paroxysmal hemicrania, where 45 per cent were affected. This is a rare form of headache that causes throbbing or a claw-like sensation on one side of the head or around the eye.

Of the 42 participants with hemicrania continua, 21 per cent had facial pain.  Hemicrania continua is a persistent headache that causes continuous pain, that varies in severity, on the same side of the head or face.

For the 15 with short-lasting unilateral neuralgiform headache, 20 per cent had facial pain. This is defined as bursts of moderate or severe burning, piercing or throbbing pain, usually on one side of the face.

Among the 283 people with cluster headaches, 42 (15 per cent) had facial pain. Of these, 31 per cent claimed they mainly felt the discomfort in their face. Cluster headaches cause excruciating attacks on one side of the head, often around the eye.

Facial pain was rare among those with migraines, with just two per cent of the 44 sufferers experiencing it.

Of those who did suffer this sort of pain, however, 41 per cent said most of their discomfort was in their face. 

Six of the participants even complained of constant pain on one side of their face. They also claimed to have ‘face pain attacks’ that last 10-to-30 minutes several times a day.

The researchers had come across this sort of headache before and suggested it be called ‘constant unilateral facial pain with added attacks’.

They stress, however, the participants were asked to recall headaches they had previously experienced and therefore may have forgotten some of their symptoms.  

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