24 May 2007

Headaches and the workplace

Headache-related productivity losses are costing the economy millions or perhaps even billions of rand, says Health24's Headache Expert.

The World Health Organization has ranked headaches as one of the five most disabling conditions affecting women and one of the ten most disabling conditions affecting both genders.

“Recent studies show that nearly half of adults around the world suffer from headaches of varying severity and frequency,” says Dr Elliot Shevel, specialist in the treatment and prevention of headaches.

“The incidence of both migraine and tension headaches increases from puberty and peaks among people in their economically productive thirties and forties; therefore meaning that the economic impact is significant.”

Of all headache sufferers, about 11% have migraine, 42% suffer from tension-type headache, and 3% get chronic daily headache (a mixture of migraine and tension-type headache that affects one more than 15 days per month).

Lowers productivity
“International research suggests that up to one in five employees worldwide suffer from acute or chronic headaches that impair their ability to do their jobs effectively and that up to 20% of lost workdays are a result of headaches,” says Dr Shevel.

"The pain of a migraine is more intense than that of a tension-type headache and a migraine is especially burdensome to the individual sufferer. However, the total disability caused by tension-type headaches is greater because of the larger numbers of people that it affects.

“According to one study, the number of workdays lost due to tension headaches was three times higher than days lost due to migraine. The real cost of headaches can't be calculated only according to the number of workdays lost - it also needs to include the costs of decreased productivity among those whose headaches are not severe enough to keep them from going to work. They might be at the office, but are only functioning at a fraction of their potential,” says Dr Shevel.

Affects all relationships
Medical research shows that more than 70% of migraine sufferers experience impairments in interpersonal relationships, including work relationships. The incidence of depression and loss of short-term memory, which also drain a sufferer's productivity, is far greater among headache sufferers. Headaches cost American employers about $13 billion a year because of lost work days and impaired work function.

“While no similar statistics are available for South Africa, headaches occur in similar proportions across countries, cultures and races, making it a safe bet that headache-related productivity losses are costing the economy millions or perhaps even billions of rand,” says Dr Shevel.

“Most headache sufferers rely on over the counter medications for relief, which exposes them to the added problems of medication side-effects. These medications may cause drowsiness and lack of concentration, and often lead to Medication Overuse Headache,” says Dr Shevel. “Medication Overuse Headaches are often even worse than the pains the sufferer was seeking relief from.”

Dr Shevel says that the good news is that the loss of productivity can be remedied by encouraging employees to seek treatment for their headaches. Since most employees are on medical aid, this needn't cost the company a cent.

As a first step, companies should gauge how much productivity they are losing to headaches. A free, simple survey available on The Headache Clinic's website provides a benchmark - this Quality of Life test asks 14 questions that provide a scientifically accurate picture of how much headaches impact on a person's ability to function at home and at work. The assessment, utilised by the leading international headache Journals, is available free of charge at

“The next step is to encourage people who are not as productive as they should be to seek help. They should look for assistance from a medical service provider that can help them identify the root cause of their headaches through a multidisciplinary assessment,” says Dr. Shevel. A "multidisciplinary assessment" combines and integrates the expertise of different specialists who would normally treat headache patients in isolation into a single body of knowledge. - The Headache Clinic


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Ask the Expert

Headache expert

Dr Elliot Shevel is a South African migraine surgery pioneer and the founder and medical director of The Headache Clinic in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town, South Africa. The Headache Clinic is a multidisciplinary practice dedicated to the diagnosis and treatment of Primary Headaches and Migraines. Dr Shevel is also the main author of all scientific publications generated by his team. He recently won a high level science debate in which he was able to prove that the current migraine diagnosis and classification is not based on data. Tertiary Education - Dr Shevel holds both Dental and Medical degrees, and practises as a specialist Maxillo-facial and Oral Surgeon. Follow the Headache Clinic on Twitter@HeadacheClinic.

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