Canadians suffered more migraines during COVID-19 pandemic, survey shows

Click to play video: 'How to tell if it’s a headache, migraine or brain aneurysm – and what to do next'
How to tell if it’s a headache, migraine or brain aneurysm – and what to do next
WATCH: How to tell if it’s a headache, migraine or brain aneurysm – and what to do next – Jun 8, 2017

Having lived with chronic migraine pain for the past 15 years, Toronto resident Maya Carvalho says the COVID-19 pandemic has offered a glimpse into what migraine sufferers endure on a regular basis.

“When you have a chronic illness that is that debilitating, you are already restricted in those ways,” Carvalho, 50, said about the lockdown measures imposed to curb the spread of COVID-19.

“They are already socially isolated … they’ve had to pull back from a lot of their social activities because they’re in pain or they have migraine symptoms that don’t allow them to do whatever they want to do.”

Carvalho, who suffers at least 20 migraines each month, says her attacks are mainly triggered by cool air moving over her face. She said the throbbing pain on the right side of her head can last as long as nine days.

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“It’s incredibly debilitating when I am in the midst of an intense attack. I literally cannot lift my head off a pillow.”

Maya Carvalho launched the Canadian Migraine Society on June 1, 2021
Maya Carvalho launched the Canadian Migraine Society on June 1, 2021. Photo supplied

A recent survey by Leger conducted for pharmaceutical company Allergan found that almost half of Canadian migraine sufferers have had more migraines amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The poll was completed online earlier this month and included a total of 3,056 Canadians. Of those surveyed, 366 said they are living with migraines and chronic migraines. The results were released on June 16.

Click to play video: 'The differences between a migraine and a headache'
The differences between a migraine and a headache

Migraine is a common neurological disorder that is caused by the activation of a mechanism deep in the brain that leads to release of pain-producing inflammatory substances around the nerves and blood vessels of the head, according to the World Health Organization.

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It can cause severe headaches, usually on one side of the head. Migraine attacks can last for hours or days, and are often accompanied by nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light and sound.

Among those surveyed who are living with chronic migraines, four-in-10 say that the pandemic has impacted or triggered their migraines.

“The pandemic is affecting us in so many different ways and people with chronic conditions are really suffering,” said Lisa Covens, vice president, communications and public affairs, of Leger in Toronto.

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A change in routine and added stress with many trying to balance working from home and looking after their children is likely causing people to experience more migraines, said Dr. Ian Finkelstein, medical director of the Toronto Headache and Pain Clinic.

“The pandemic has literally changed the way people have lived their lives over the last two years.

“For migrainers, especially chronic migrainers, they travel on this very thin line and if they’re thrown off … that balancing act that they’re on, their headaches get worse.”

Uncertainty from the pandemic, a drop in physical activity and dehydration from wearing face masks all day long are also contributing factors, he added.

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Access to migraine treatment. Graphic courtesy of Allergan

Of those who said they were migraine sufferers, women were more than twice as likely to get migraines or chronic migraines compared to men, the survey showed.

“Definitely we see more migraine headaches in females than we do males, without a doubt,” said Finkelstein.

While there is no clear evidence for the gender difference, Finkelstein said hormonal influences with women experiencing migraines around the time of their menstrual period is one hypothesis.

People below the age of 35 and those with children 18 years of age or younger in the household were also significantly more likely to say they get migraines.

More than one-third of Canadians are facing challenges accessing treatment for migraines and finding a specialist for their disease, according to the survey.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded several health challenges amid lockdown measures and health-care service restrictions imposed to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.

During the first wave of the pandemic, emergency hospital visits dropped by 50 per cent across the country, according to data from the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI).

Many are hesitant about in-person medical appointments because of the fear of catching COVID-19, said Covens.

“We’ve seen it across health-care in general, that people are putting their health on a bit of a backburner during the pandemic that they don’t want to go into a medical clinic, they don’t want to go to a hospital or to a doctor’s office,” she told Global News.

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Carvalho, who is the founder of the Canadian Migraine Society, takes a monthly injection administered at home to manage her symptoms, so her treatment has not been disrupted by the pandemic.

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But she said many of the members in her support group who needed Botox, nerve blocks or other interventions have been unable to receive medical attention because of the lockdown measures.

Finkelstein said treating migraines was a “huge problem” not only for patients, but for the doctors as well.

This is because there are not many physicians in the country that specialize in treating migraines and also patients often tend to suffer in silence without seeking care, he said.

“Migraine and chronic migraine is significantly underdiagnosed and undertreated, not only in Canada, but actually globally.”

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