Headache Patients Face Limited Options, Despite Prevalence and Pain

by Amanda Conschafter, Blog Editor

Far more than an occasional nuisance, headaches interfere with countless Americans’ daily lives – and cost the country $31 billion annually.  Yet the National Institutes of Health funding for headache disorders research pales in comparison to funding for less widespread conditions.  This apparent discrepancy was central among the concerns expressed by the physician and patient advocates convening today for Alliance for Headache Disorders Advocacy’s seventh annual Headache on the Hill in Washington, DC.

The group’s message to Congress focuses on the toll – financial, physical and emotional – that headaches exact on Americans.  Increasingly prevalent, headaches now affect one in six migraine sufferers for at least four hours per day, 15 days a month.  Cluster headaches can be severe to the point of provoking suicidal thoughts.  And, in recent years, veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts who suffer concussions have developed into a new subset of headache sufferers; 20 percent have headaches daily, while 70 percent experience episodic headaches.

Often, suffering extends beyond physical pain. For example, research suggests that workers with 15 days or more of migraine headaches can see their productivity diminish by roughly 14 percent. But the NIH funding for headache disorders research doesn’t seem to reflect these facts.  For instance, although migraine results in more lost years of healthy life in the U.S. each year than multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, ovarian cancer, and tuberculosis combined, NIH research funding for these four diseases was more than 35 times that for migraine in 2012.

Similarly, medication and health care options remain limited.  Only one medication in the past 50 years has been developed and approved by the FDA specifically for migraines.  Meanwhile, a mere 421 doctors in the United States hold UCNS-Board certification for specialty training in headache medicine.

As the broad impact of headache disorders becomes increasingly clear, the availability of research funding and health care solutions remains stagnant. Meantime, patients suffer through loss of health, productivity and quality of life.  To bridge the divide between repercussion and recourse, patient advocacy groups work toward increased awareness – and search for a comprehensive policy solution.

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