Researchers at University Hospital Limerick have linked a significant increase in people presenting with acute headaches to the widespread use of masks.
The study by doctors at UHL said the findings suggest there may be a new phenomenon of “mask-induced headaches” in the general population arising out of the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, they did not find a link between mask-wearing and increased levels of CO₂ in patients in a new medical study.
The study, which is published in the latest edition of the Irish Medical Journal, found the number of patients reporting acute headaches to UHL almost trebled over a three-month period last year compared to the corresponding period in 2019.
A total of 329 patients at UHL complained of severe headaches between June and August 2020 — up from 113 the previous year.
However, the authors of the report said there was no rise in average CO₂ levels in patients between 2019 and 2020 which they said was an important message to combat the spread of fake news about the wearing of masks.
“We believe this is an important message to help combat damaging misinformation on social media problems,” they said.
While there is good evidence that universal mask-wearing can help reduce the transmission of Covid-19 infections, researchers at UHL said there were media reports of increases in the number of people suffering from headaches linked to hypercapnia — the build-up of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream.
The researchers examined files on all patients who presented to the hospital’s acute medical unit with acute headaches between June and August 2020 and compared them with the corresponding period in 2019.
They found no difference in the average age or sex of patients reporting headaches over the two years.
The average age of patients with headaches at UHL last year was 47 years, while just over six in 10 patients were females.
The study said mask-induced headaches could be explained by several different factors including pressure from tight-fitting masks or ear loops or potential changes in their upper airway conditions.
It said hypoxemia — where oxygen levels in the blood are lower than normal — was another potential factor, while dehydration could also be a cause of the headaches given they occurred during the months of summer.
Researchers said increased stress levels, which is a well-known trigger of headaches, due to the pandemic could also help to explain the increase.