Almost half of all adults worldwide have headache disorders such as migraines and tension headaches, and the problem has huge economic and societal costs, the World Health Organisation said.
Yet headaches are widely under-recognised, underdiagnosed and undertreated, and the scant knowledge about them and the burdens they impose must be improved, the WHO said.
Publishing its first global atlas on headaches, the Geneva-based UN health body said it found that 47% of all adults have a headache disorder and "the financial costs to society through lost productivity are enormous".
In the EU alone, 190 million days are lost from work every year because of migraine, it said.
"Headache and migraine disorders are greatly underrated and underreported by health systems and receive too little attention," Dr Shekhar Saxena, the WHO's director of mental health and substance abuse disorders, said in an e-mailed statement about the report.
"Headaches can be debilitating for many people, rendering them unable to work. During migraine attacks, 90% of people postpone household chores, almost three-quarters have limited ability to work and half of them miss work entirely."
Migraine affects around one in six women and one in 12 men, and has been estimated to be the most expensive brain disorder to society in the EU and the US.
The WHO report found that most importantly, headache disorders are very disabling: Worldwide, migraine alone is the cause of 1.3% of all disability due to illness, it said, and experts estimate that taken together, all headache disorders account for double this burden.
Migraine alone is the cause of an estimated 400,000 lost days from work or school every year per million of the population in developed countries, and in the EU, the total annual cost of all headache has recently been estimated at €155bn ($229bn).
"Governments must take the issue more seriously, train health personnel in headache disorder diagnosis and treatment, and ensure appropriate medication is available and used properly," Saxena said.
An international scientific team said in 2010 it had for the first time identified a genetic risk factor linked with common migraines - a finding that could open the way for new treatments to prevent migraine attacks. - (Reuters, April 2011)
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