Many of the 36 million migraine sufferers in the US turn off their smartphones — any lights and sounds, for that matter — when a headache sets in, so it may come as a surprise that researchers at NYU School of Medicine are touting a de-stressor app they say may help manage the pain.
The RELAXaHEAD app, developed in partnership with Boston-based Irody Inc., guides patients through a form of behavioral therapy called progressive muscle relaxation, or PMR, that instructs users to alternately contract and relax various muscle groups, which doctors say help to reduce stress.
Experts do not know why migraines arise, nor is there a cure, but drug treatments are available. Doctors often also prescribe behavioral therapy in tandem with medication, but neurologist Mia Minen says, says many forgo counseling because of a lack of funds or access.
“Our study offers evidence that patients may pursue behavioral therapy if it is easily accessible, they can do it on their own time, and it is affordable,” says Minen, the study’s senior investigator. “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.”
The team, whose findings appear in the journal Nature Digital Medicine online, asked 51 migraine patients at NYU Langone Health to use the app for 90 days and keep a journal of the frequency and severity of their headaches during that time. The app itself then tracked their therapy.
After six weeks, 49 percent of participants stopped using RELAXaHEAD, and after three months, only 29 percent were still using it. Anticipating a gradual decline, study authors hope to find new ways to encourage the habit, and how best to integrate the app into clinical practice.
“Data overwhelmingly shows that most people download apps and never use them,” Minen tells The Post. “In our study, there was much better user engagement than many of the other mobile health studies out there.”
On average, the participants experienced 13 headaches per month, with some reporting as few as four or as many as 31 days. Thirty percent of the patients also suffer from depression, and 31 percent with anxiety.
Minen says those who used the app most frequently (two or more times per week) reported four fewer headache days by the second month, compared low users (two or less per week) who had only two fewer migraine days in the second month.
NYU Langone has also disclosed their financial stake in the app, which is not yet publicly available.
Minen says this study indicates that smartphone technology may be able to “effectively teach patients lifelong skills needed to manage their migraines.”