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Headache

13 March 2020

Could smartphones be making migraines even tougher to treat?

A study found that people with frequent headaches who don't have smartphones take less medication than headache sufferers with smartphones.

If you have raging headaches and you spend a lot of time on your smartphone, a new study suggests you might want to put your phone down whenever you can.

Researchers found that people who use their smartphones frequently and have headaches or migraines also tend to need to take more medications than those with headaches who do not have smartphones.

Of course, this study can't prove that it's the smartphone that makes your headache worse, only that it might, the researchers said. And one headache expert said the study raises more questions than it answers.

"Although the cause of association of headache with smartphone use is not clear, this study finds an association of smartphone use in headache patients in terms of increased pill count and less relief with painkillers," said lead researcher Dr Deepti Vibha. She's an associate professor in the department of neurology at All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi, India.

Cutting back unrealistic

The report was published online in the journal Neurology Clinical Practice.

Dr Heidi Moawad, of the department of medical education at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, co-authored an editorial accompanying the new report. She said, "These results raise an important issue because people rely so heavily on mobile devices."

The findings may prompt some people to try to cut back on using their smartphone, but that can be unrealistic for many people, even those who suffer from headaches, Moawad said.

"It's likely that the devices will be modified so that they can provide the same convenience without causing problems like headaches, eye strain or neck pain. Who knows – maybe the technology will even be modified in a way that helps improve these issues," Moawad added.

For the study, Vibha and her colleagues collected data on 400 people with various types of headaches, including migraine and tension headaches. Participants were asked about their smartphone use, headaches and medications. In all, 206 used smartphones.

More painkillers

Compared with those who didn't use smartphones, people who used the devices were more likely to take painkillers for headaches (81% and 96%, respectively), and smartphone users took an average of eight pills per month, compared with five pills among those who didn't use smartphones.

Also, 84% of smartphone users said they got relief for their headache, compared with 94% of nonusers.

No difference between smartphone users and nonusers was seen in how often headaches occurred, how long they lasted or how bad they were, the study authors noted.

One limitation of the study is that the data were reported by the participants, so errors in memory might skew the data, the researchers said.

A headache expert who was not involved with the research stressed that this study is far from conclusive.

Highly speculative study

"In a very short period of time, cellphones have become extremely common, with a high rate of use not just for talking, but for shopping, reading mail, listening to music and watching media," said Dr Noah Rosen, director of the Northwell Health Headache Center, in Great Neck, New York.

With an increasing rate of use, it is important to consider implications, from the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome to brain tumours, he noted.

However, this study is highly speculative, Rosen said. Many factors that can influence headache and migraine, and access to care – such as difference in education and socioeconomic status – were not taken into account.

"Without fully controlling for these issues, this paper just leaves us with more questions," Rosen said. "It does teach us to be mindful of those things we use every day and how it may otherwise affect us."

Image credit: iStock

 

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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