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Smartphone app guides migraine sufferers through relaxation therapy

A new smartphone application developed in part by the NYU School of Medicine is helping migraine sufferers by providing training on a relaxation technique. After practicing the method at least twice per week, individuals reported an average of four fewer headache days per month.

RELAXaHEAD guides patients through progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), which is a type of behavioral therapy that involves alternately relaxing and tensing different muscle groups to reduce stress.

According to the study authors, the research is the first to evaluate the potential for an app to treat migraines. It is also the first to examine the effectiveness of combining digital technology with traditional therapies under the supervision of a doctor.

“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,” said study senior author and neurologist Dr. Mia Minen. “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.”

There are more than 36 million people in the United States who suffer from migraines. The most common symptoms are moderate to severe head pain, nausea, and sensitivity to light and sound.

Dr. Minen explained that while patients are often prescribed drug treatments and behavioral therapy, they do not pursue the therapy even after a doctor’s recommendation because of the expense and inconvenience. “Oftentimes they end up only taking medications.”

The researchers tested the app among 51 confirmed migraine patients, who were asked to keep a daily record of the frequency and severity of their headaches while using the tool for 90 days. At the same time, the app kept track of how long and how often patients used PMR.

The study participants had an average of 13 headache days per month, ranging from four to 31. Anxiety and depression were also reported by about 30 percent of the patients.

The use of the RELAXaHEAD app and PMR dropped to 51 percent after six weeks and dropped even further to 29 percent after three months. The study authors expected this gradual decrease in the use of the app,  and they plan to identify potential ways to encourage more frequent sessions.

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

The study is published in the journal Nature Digital Medicine.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

Image Credit: Shutterstock

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