New smartphone app may help people manage migraine

Researchers have developed a smartphone-based relaxation app which may help reduce the frequency of headaches in people suffering from migraine. Migraine sufferers who used the technique at least twice a week experienced on average four fewer headache days per month, said researchers from the New York University School of Medicine (NYU) in the US.

The app, called RELAXaHEAD, guides patients through progressive muscle relaxation, or PMR. In this form of behavioural therapy, patients alternately relax and tense different muscle groups to reduce stress.

The study, published in the journal Nature Digital Medicine, is the first to evaluate the clinical effectiveness of an app for treating migraine, and adding an app to standard therapies such as oral medications under the supervision of a doctor.

“Our study offers evidence that patients may pursue behavioural therapy if it is easily accessible, they can do it on their own time, and it is affordable,” said Mia Minen, an assistant professor at NYU. “Clinicians need to rethink their treatment approach to migraine because many of the accepted therapies, although proven to be the current, best course of treatment, aren’t working for all lifestyles,” Minen said.

Primary symptoms of migraine include moderate to severe head pain that is often accompanied by nausea and sensitivity to light and sound. Patients are often prescribed drug treatments and behavioural therapy, but do not pursue the therapy even after a doctor’s recommendation because of the expense and inconvenience, said Minen.

“Oftentimes they end up only taking medications,” she said. To see if an app might increase compliance, the research team analysed app use by 51 confirmed migraine patients, all of whom owned smartphones.

Participants were asked to use the app for 90 days and to keep a daily record of the frequency and severity of their headaches, while the app kept track of how long and often patients used PMR.

Study participants, on average, had 13 headache days per month, ranging between four and 31. Thirty-nine per cent of patients in the study also reported having anxiety, and 30 per cent had depression. PMR therapy utilising the RELAXaHEAD app dropped to 51 per cent after six weeks, and to 29 per cent after three months.

The researchers, who anticipated a gradual decrease in the use of the app, next plan to identify potential ways to encourage more frequent sessions. They also plan to study the best ways to introduce the app into their clinical practices.

Minen said the study results suggest that accessible smartphone technologies “can effectively teach patients lifelong skills needed to manage their migraines.

MigraineNYURELAXaHEADRelaxation App
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