Your smartphone is making your headaches much worse

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There’s no device that personifies the times we live in more than the smartphone. These incredible devices have undeniably improved the quality of our lives in a multitude of ways, yet at the same time many people are feeling more and more burnt out by their smartphones. 

At a certain point, all that time spent staring at a tiny screen has gotta be less than healthy, right? 

A new study just published in the official journal of the American Academy of Neurology is adding some food for thought to this topic with some unexpected findings. Researchers found that smartphone users (so…everyone) who experience a headache are less likely to find relief from medication and more likely to end up taking more meds. 

Now, it’s important to clarify the study’s exact findings. Researchers stress that they did not flat out discover that smartphones cause nastier and harder to treat headaches. What they observed was an association between smartphone users and a tendency to use more medication and report less relief in the event of a headache. Nonetheless, these results would hardly make an effective commercial for the latest phone model.

Let’s face it; it’s hard to put down our phones these days. iPhones and the like may just be too user friendly. Millions feel naked without their smartphone by their side and some are of the opinion that an entire generation of people have developed an addiction to smartphones. 

Whether anyone is truly addicted to their smartphone or not, the fact remains that they haven’t even been in existence long enough for modern science to truly grasp the effect they may be having on users, both psychologically and on a neural level.

“While these results need to be confirmed with larger and more rigorous studies, the findings are concerning, as smartphone use is growing rapidly and has been linked to a number of symptoms, with headache being the most common,” comments study author & AAN member Deepti Vibha, DM, from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi, in a press release.

Researchers gathered 400 people from India who reported regularly dealing with a primary headache condition (migraine, tension headache, etc). The term “primary headache condition” means that the headache symptoms aren’t being caused by some other known medical problem in the patient. Each person was asked about their smartphone habits, severity of headache symptoms, and medication use.

Of that original group, 206 were smartphone users and 194 were non-users. For the most part, the non-smartphone users were older individuals within a lower socioeconomic bracket than the smartphone group.

Smartphone users (96%) were more likely to take the medication in general for their headaches than non-users (81%). But, even the non-users who did take medication often took less than the smartphone owners. Smartphone users, on average, reported taking eight pills each month, while non-users usually took an average of just five.

Those who use smartphones also admitted they typically experience less relief from medication than non-users. In all, 84% of smartphone users said they are able to gain “moderate or complete relief” from medication, while 94% of non-users said the same. 

Despite these clear fluctuations between the two groups, there were no real differences in many other key headache aspects such as frequency of occurrence, duration, and severity.

“The root of the problem is not yet clear,” says Heidi Moawad, MD, of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, and John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio. “Is it a user’s neck position? Or the phone’s lighting? Or eye strain? Or the stress of being connected at all times? Answers will likely emerge in the upcoming years and eventually guide strategies for more sustainable use of the devices. Features such as hands-free settings, voice activation and audio functions could potentially hold the key to helping smartphone users benefit from their phones without exacerbating their headaches.”

It’s clear that a great deal of further research is necessary before any absolute conclusions can be drawn on this subject. Still, the next time you feel a headache coming on, consider putting down your phone for a few minutes.

The full study can be found here, published in Neurology® Clinical Practice.