Migraine Research Is Underfunded, and Stigmas Are to Blame

Beyond the death toll and economic damage of the coronavirus crisis, COVID-19 has impacted millions of Americans in countless other ways, such as the nationwide surge in the number of disabling, anxiety-induced migraines since the start of the pandemic .

Yet for a disease that affects 1 in 7 Americans and contributes to massive economic and workplace productivity losses, chronic migraines are often dismissed as nothing more than a bad headache, a stigma that has caused research to be underfunded and migraineurs as a community to be underserved. With an uptick in migraine attacks quickly becoming the new normal, additional attention must be paid to improving migraine education and developing new treatments and technologies that can address the significant burden of this debilitating disease.

The first step is educating the public that migraines are more than just a headache. The World Health Organization reports migraines to be one of the top 10 causes of years lived with a disability, with a 15.3 percent increase in prevalence between 2005 and 2015. Some even consider a day lived with a severe continuous migraine to be as debilitating as a day lived with dementia or acute psychosis and more disabling than blindness or paraplegia.

Not only is there a price paid by individuals suffering migraines, but the cost to society can be exorbitant. People with migraines experience 70 percent higher annual health care costs than those without, and 157 million work days are lost every year in the United States, costing employers $13 billion annually.

Yet, despite these staggering statistics, migraine research remains woefully underfunded and patients unfairly stigmatized. According to a June 2013 study in the journal PLOS One, chronic migraine sufferers experience the same amount of stigma – if not more – as people with epilepsy.

Some specialists even dismiss detailed study and research into migraines as not being “real neurology” and not worthy of funding. These perceptions have created a major funding gap, with the National Institutes of Health funding for migraine research estimated to be only $.50 per sufferer. Given that migraines disproportionately affect women, a gender bias may also be at play.

Encouragingly, technology is starting to offer real-world insight where academic studies don’t exist, providing migraineurs with the means to generate their own diagnosable data that can improve their treatment and advance research into the disorder more broadly. Mobile health – or mHealth – tracking apps like Migraine Buddy allow patients to easily record information about their migraine triggers, frequency, duration, pain intensity and location, as well as symptoms, medication taken and other lifestyle risk factors. Individuals can then generate detailed reports that provide their doctors with a data-rich picture of their migraine activity, resulting in far better patient outcomes than can be achieved from an outpatient visit.

Beyond the individual patient benefits of mHealth apps, drug developers are increasingly relying on the real-world data and real-world evidence that tracking apps can provide to better understand how patients respond to treatments in their everyday lives rather than in an artificial clinical trial setting, vastly increasing the speed at which new and more effective therapies can be brought to market.

Considering that the COVID-19 crisis has fueled a 75 percent quarter-over-quarter increase in mHealth app downloads, the volume of valuable, patient-generated data is likely to grow exponentially. This trove of information will provide never-before seen health insights to doctors, drug developers and researchers, and hopefully will lead to a new and exciting wave of treatments for a wide range of diseases and disorders.

With the pandemic shining a light on the impact of stress-induced migraines across the country, it is critical that everyone in the migraine community, from patients to clinicians to researchers, work to defeat the stigmas associated with this debilitating neurological disorder. Only then will migraines receive the level of attention, funding, and medical research that it – and it’s 40 million sufferers – deserve.

Francois Cadiou is CEO and co-founder of Healint, a leading provider of health care technology and developer of Migraine Buddy.

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