Whether it's a dull ache or a temple-splitting torment, headaches are never a pleasant thing to experience.
While direct links between headaches as a symptom of dementia are hazy at best – for many people living with dementia, and those caring for them, persistent headaches can be a real blight on their daily lives.
Of course, the truth is, most people suffer from the odd headache and even migraines from time to time. And all sorts of causes can be at play, from stress to aching muscles, emotional distress to immune system fighting a bug, lack of sleep to increased brain processing. But, when people with dementia feel headache symptoms coming on, it's often not as simple as taking some paracetamol and hoping the pain subsides.
How to tell if a person you're caring for has a headache if they can't tell you?
Depending on the severity of dementia your loved one is experiencing, you may be able to ask them how they're feeling, or help them articulate the extent of the pain. However, in the later stages of dementia, it can sadly no longer possible to pinpoint the specifics of discomfort, both where the pain's coming from and how bad it is.
Advice from carers and medical practitioners often encourages people to look out for changes in behaviour, and other non-verbal cues to work out whether your loved one is experiencing pain. Some of these signs can include:
- Facial grimacing
- Gestures that indicate distress
- Bringing a hand to a part of the head for extended periods
- Moaning and aggravated movements
- Limited range of motion or slow movement
- Increased heart rate, blood pressure or sweating
- Crying or distress
- Increased or decreased talking
- Withdrawn social behaviour
How to help ease headaches
If you've established that you're dealing with a headache – confident that it's a minor ailment and nothing more worrying – you're advised to administer the suggested dose of paracetamol. If however, you're more concerned that the pain is either acute, recurring, or persistent, then it's always wise to visit a GP, who can investigate the issue in more depth.
If you're keen to explore ways of easing headache symptoms without medical intervention (perhaps you feel you've relied too heavily on paracetamol or its equivalent in the past), then the following tips may help ease the pain...
- Eat Ginger – Often called upon as a cure for nausea, ginger has certainly earned its superfood stripes. Stem ginger has properties known to help ease the effects of migraines too, and can be taken in both supplement form, or freshly grated and brewed to make a tea.
- Massage – Often pressure on the back of the neck or shoulders can aggravate nerve endings, which in turn can lead to headaches. Massaging this area can help release built-up stress, and be a nice way to help your loved one relax and unwind at the end of the day.
- Switch off – Watching bright screens for an extended period can cause migraines to appear. What's more blue-light from TVs and phones also plays havoc with sleep, which can exacerbate headache issues.
- Drink up – As with most health issues, good old H20 is essential to stave off headaches. Dehydration is one of the leading causes of head pain, so try to keep your loved one topped up on fluids throughout the day.
Are headaches and dementia linked?
You'd be hard-pushed to find a tangible link between headaches being a direct symptom of dementia. However, a study which took place at the Department of Neuroscience at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Norway, did, in fact, show a link that headaches could be a factor in the development of the disease; rather than a symptom of the disease itself.
In the study, 50,000 people provided headache data. The correlation between headache and dementia was most evident among those who experienced 15 or more headaches per month, and for those ages 75 and older.
Within the group, those that experienced any headache, whether it was a small scale or a full migraine, were suggested to be 2.3 times more likely to develop vascular dementia, and twice as likely to develop mixed dementia.
While this sounds very worrying, the authors were keen to stress that not all headache sufferers with headache symptoms will go on to develop dementia. Instead, they felt the study highlighted the need for more research to be done into the area to prove anything conclusive.
Could the headache be a hallucination?
Another challenging factor in ascertaining how severe a headache may be in someone living with dementia, is whether or not the headache symptoms - as we know them - are really there. One of the more complex and challenging symptoms of dementia is the visceral hallucinations that come with the condition.
Not only can these be visual and aural; with people experiencing phantom images and sounds, hallucinations can manifest physically, as pains and aches that may not actually be there.
If you're concerned that the person you're looking after might be experiencing a false headache, it's always better to acknowledge their experience, rather than ignore or dismiss it. Much like other hallucinations dementia may cause, to someone that believes the symptoms are there, does it make them any less real?
A note on eyesight...
When it comes to headaches, having the wrong type of eyewear – whether it's prescribed lenses, or ineffective sunglasses – can often be an undetected culprit. A trip to the optician could have your loved one seeing clearly and liberated from their headache gripes.