This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on April 16, 2014.
Migraine headaches are often called debilitating, but a recent study shows the pain isn’t enough to keep people off Twitter.
For one week, researchers from the University of Michigan tracked all the tweets mentioning migraines worldwide and discovered almost 22,000 of them. Then they – and 50 student assistants – spent the next several months analyzing and categorizing them. Sixty-five percent of tweets were from people experiencing a severe headache in real time.
“I was surprised that so many people would go to their (Twitter enabled) devices during a migraine,” said Dr. Alexandre DaSilva, the study’s lead author and director of the Headache and Orofacial Pain Effort at the University of Michigan. “People are really suffering, based on what they write.”
He added that Twitter is a quick way to share pain with others, and sharing gives people relief, especially when friends respond with sympathy or support.
Analysis showed women tweeted about migraines four times as often as men, which is roughly consistent with medical data showing that three times as many women as men have migraines. In the United States, migraine tweets peaked at 9 a.m. and 8 p.m. on weekdays. The morning tweets peaked later on weekends.
The words most commonly used to describe migraines were “worst” and “massive,” but DaSilva said many tweets were also laced with profanity. “The F-word was really popular,” he said.
Based on previous research, DaSilva created a migraine tracking smartphone app called Pain Trek. He says this study shows people are willing to use social media to communicate about their migraines during the attacks, provided they can do it quickly. Knowing this can help doctors develop new tools to interact with migraine patients and identify headache patterns.