Telemedicine: what headache sufferers have been waiting for?

Dr. Risa Ravitz | January 9, 2019

Here at Modern Migraine MD, we are firm believers that telemedicine has the power to fundamentally improve patients’ access to highly effective, specialized care for their headaches. There’s already a shortage of neurologists, and it’s estimated that by 2025 the amount of patients needing neurologic services will be 19% higher than the supply of neurologists available. This means that headache sufferers will need a new solution, and telemedicine might just be it.

What does this mean for patients?

The number of neurologists available is already pretty low, with the amount of headache-trained specialists being even fewer. Wait times can go on for over a month, and when you’re suffering with headaches or migraines, that’s a long time to go with no answers or pain relief. Many patients are resorting to waiting in emergency rooms for hours on end because they can’t see the right headache neurologist.

So, is telemedicine the answer?

A recent study published in Neurology by the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) concluded that for headaches, telemedicine may be as effective as an in-person visit. The study was performed by Dr. Muller of the Arctic University of Norway, who treated 201 patients in-person, and an additional 201 using telemedicine.

The study found that there were no differences between the groups that had the traditional office visits vs. those having telemedicine visits, based on safety markers and measures of levels of pain before and after the treatments. In each group, one secondary cause of headache was found, which did not show any difference in the treatment groups.

A secondary headache is pain in the head caused by another condition, such as bleeding in the brain. As doctors, we look for red flags to try to determine which patients are likely to have something more serious. The study found equal numbers of secondary headaches in each group, indicating that doctors treating via telemedicine are just as likely to pick up those telltale signs.

Who should consider headache treatment via telemedicine?

  • People who have had headaches for a long time that have been difficult to treat.
  • People who have been to the emergency room or have seen their primary care doctor and were told to see a headache specialist or neurologist.
  • People who have already seen many doctors and would like another opinion on their headaches.
  • People who are not geographically close to an available neurologist or headache specialist, or have difficulty travelling to see a specialist.

Of course, telemedicine is not appropriate for all medical conditions, and it is not appropriate for someone experiencing a new, severe headache. Anyone experiencing headaches combined with symptoms such as fever, inability to talk, new visual changes, numbness, weakness, or tingling should go to the emergency room or dial 911 (or your country’s emergency number if outside the US).

But — if you fit the bill of the people described in the list above, headache treatment through telemedicine could be the fast, effective, and specialized attention you’ve been waiting for.

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