If you’ve ever felt the pulsating pain, nausea and blinding light sensitivity that comes with a migraine, you’re not alone. In the US, more than 37 million people get these severe headache attacks that can last for several hours at a time.
If you’ve experienced migraines, you also know that their arrival can be sudden and unpredictable. Now a team of researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital has developed a new forecasting model that has the potential to pinpoint when a migraine will strike by tracking an individual’s stress levels over time.
While more work is needed before the model is ready for clinical use, a system that reliably predicts the onset of migraines could provide much needed relief for chronic migraine sufferers.
Migraines are more than just a bad headache – they are an incapacitating collection of neurological symptoms that affect 18% of American women and 6% of men, according to the Migraine Research Foundation. Symptoms range from flashes of light, one-sided throbbing pain, sensitivity to light and sound, nausea and much more. Migraine attacks can be incredibly painful and debilitating, sometimes confining the sufferer to a darkened room until the symptoms subside. More than 90% of sufferers are unable to work or function normally during their migraine.
Doctors know that certain genes can make some individuals more susceptible to getting migraines, and potential migraine triggers can include stress, hormone fluctuations, lack of sleep and certain foods. However, predicting the exact cause and time of an individual migraine attack remains difficult. To make matters worse, preventative drugs that help to nip a migraine in the bud are only effective when taken at the onset of symptoms.
Developing and Testing a Forecast Model
Because perceived stress has received considerable attention for its association with the onset of headaches, a team of researchers led by Tim Houle, PhD, Associate Professor of Anesthesia, Critical Care, and Pain Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, developed a forecasting model for predicting future migraine attacks based on current levels of stress and head pain.
To test out the model, the team recruited 95 participants with a history of migraines. Participants were asked to keep a daily diary recording the frequency and intensity of their stress levels and presence/absence of any head pain. Each variable was measured using a specific scale.
Of the 4,195 days of analyzed diary data, participants experienced a migraine on 1,613 of these days (38.5%). By analyzing participants’ self reported stress levels, the research team found statistically significant evidence that stress was greater in the days leading up to a reported migraine.
What This Means for Migraine Sufferers
The results provide the first statistically significant evidence that individual headache attacks can be forecasted within an individual sufferer. However, Houle cautions that the predictive model needs to be refined before it can be of widespread clinical use, and for now should be viewed as a first step in a new venture of forecasting migraine attacks.
In the future, a reliable forecasting model could be used to improve treatment options, reduce anxiety about the unpredictability of attacks and increase an individual’s confidence in their ability to self-manage migraine attacks.