From the Journals

Assessing headache severity via migraine symptoms can help predict outcomes



A headache severity score compiled by assessing various migraine symptoms can help predict the likelihood of doctor visits and missed work or school, according to an analysis of data from thousands of headache sufferers who recorded variables like pain and duration in a daily digital diary.

“Our hope is that this work serves as foundational basis for better understanding the complexity of headache as a symptom-based condition,” James S. McGinley, PhD, of Vector Psychometric Group in Chapel Hill, N.C., and coauthors wrote. The study was published in Cephalalgia.

To evaluate whether keeping track of daily headache features can produce a useful, predictive score, the researchers reviewed data from migraine patients that were collected via N1‑Headache, a commercial digital health platform. Ultimately, information from 4,380 adults with a self-reported migraine diagnosis was analyzed; the sample was 90% female and their mean age was 37 years. Study participants reported an average of 33 headaches per month over the last 3 months. Nine patient-reported variables were initially considered in calculating the Headache Day Severity (HDS) score: pain intensity, headache duration, aura, pulsating/throbbing pain, unilateral pain, pain aggravation by activity, nausea/vomiting, photophobia, and phonophobia.

After determining that unilateral pain was not a meaningful variable, the researchers’ model found that, for every 1 standard deviation increase in HDS, the patient’s odds of physician visit increased by 71% (odds ratio, 1.71; 95% confidence interval, 1.32-2.21) and the odds of an ED visit increased by 342% (OR, 4.42; 95% CI, 2.23-7.60). They also found that the likelihood of missed work or school increased by 190% (OR, 2.90; 95% CI, 2.56-3.29), the chances of missing household work increased by 237% (OR, 3.37; 95% CI, 3.06-3.72) and the odds of missing other leisure or social activity increased by 228% (OR, 3.28; 95% CI, 2.97-3.64).

Tracking multiple variables

“We encourage all of our patients to monitor their headaches; there are just too many variables to try to keep it in your head,” Robert Cowan, MD, professor of neurology and chief of the division of headache medicine at Stanford (Calif.) University, said in an interview. He referenced a previous study from the University of Washington where patients were asked to track their headaches; that data was then compared against their self-reported headaches at a quarterly physician visit.

Dr. Robert Cowan

“What they found was there was absolutely no correlation with reported frequency of headache at the visit and what was seen in the tracker,” he said. “If patients had a headache in the previous 3 days before their visit, they felt that their headaches were poorly controlled. If they hadn’t, they thought their headaches were under good control. So the value of tracking is pretty clear.”

He added that, while not every headache sufferer needs to track their daily routines and symptoms, once those symptoms interfere with your life on a day-to-day basis, it’s probably time to consider keeping tabs on yourself with a tool of some sort. And while this study’s calculated HDS score supports the idea of migraine’s complexity, it also leaves unanswered the question of how to treat patients with severe symptoms.

“Frequently,” he said, “we’ll see patients who say: ‘I can deal with the pain, but the nausea makes it impossible to work, or the light sensitivity makes it impossible to go outside.’ The big question within the headache community is, can you treat migraine and have it address the whole spectrum, from dizziness to light sensitivity to sound sensitivity to vertigo, or should you be going after individual symptoms? That’s a controversy that rages on; I think most of us go for a combination. We’re in a polypharmacy phase: ‘If nausea is a big problem, take this, but we also try to prevent the whole migraine complex, so take this as well.’ ”

The authors acknowledged their study’s limitations, including the inability to determine how many participants’ migraines were formally diagnosed by a trained medical professional and the lack of generalizability of data from a convenience sample, though they added that patients who independently track their own headaches “may be representative of those who would participate in a clinical trial.” In addition, as seven of the nine features were collected in N1‑Headache on a yes/no scale, they recognized that “increasing the number of response options for each item may improve our ability to measure HDS.”

The study was funded by Amgen through the Competitive Grant Program in Migraine Research. The authors declared several potential conflicts of interest, including receiving funding, research support, salary, and honoraria from various pharmaceutical companies.

Next Article: