Though seeing a social media newsfeed full of misery is not exactly uplifting for the reader, for the writer, venting about pain can be cathartic. Now, the first study of its kind shows the impact of migraines on patients by analyzing individuals’ Twitter posts related to migraine attacks.

The study – led by Alexandre DaSilva, assistant professor and director of the Headache and Orofacial Pain Effort at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry – is published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

“As technology and language evolve,” says DaSilva, “so does the way we share our suffering.”

As such, he and his team wanted to “evaluate the instant expression of actual self-reported migraine attacks in social media,” he adds.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), headaches are one of the most common nervous system disorders; around 47% of the global adult population have had headaches at least once within the last year.

And the study authors say around 12% of the Western population experience migraine attacks, 75% of which have reduced functionality and 30% require bed rest.

Caused by a mechanism deep in the brain that results in the release of inflammatory substances around the nerves and blood vessels of the head, migraines can be quite painful and even debilitating at times, harming overall mood and quality of life.

Increasingly, social media is becoming a conduit through which to express both pain and happiness. We recently reported on a study that suggested happiness is viral; happy status updates encourage other users to post happy updates.

And another study suggested that using Twitter as a support system to lose weight is beneficial.

Speaking with Medical News Today, DaSilva said:

Social media allows us to track how our society is constantly evolving in the way we express and share our suffering. This kind of information is crucial to better connect with and understand our pain patients in order to provide the most effective treatment and relief they sought for.”

To analyze how, where and when migraine sufferers use social media to depict their pain, DaSilva and his colleagues, along with 50 students, categorized 21,741 tweets.

After disposing of advertising, metaphor and non-related migraine tweets, the team analyzed the meaning of each and every migraine tweet.

Once every tweet was categorized, the team analyzed the most common descriptions of migraines, which included profanities, tweet times and locations, and the impact on mood and productivity.

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No shouting, please. Tweets about migraines were analyzed by researchers, who found the majority of self-reported migraine sufferers on Twitter came from the US.

The team found that only 65% of the migraine-related tweets were from actual individuals suffering from migraine. The other remaining 35% consisted of ads, discussion and retweets, which DaSilva says illustrates how not everything in social media is relevant to the patient.

Overall, their findings revealed that:

  • 74% of migraine tweets came from females
  • The highest global peak of migraine tweets happened on Mondays at 10 am Eastern Daylight Saving Time
  • 58% of migraine tweets came from the US, followed by 20% from Europe
  • On weekdays in the US, migraine tweets peaked at 9 am and 8 pm, while morning tweets peaked later on weekends
  • 44% of tweets revealed that migraines immediately affected mood.

Given that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report from a 2009 national survey that females were more likely than males to have experienced a migraine or headache – 21.8% versus 10% – perhaps it is not surprising that the majority of migraine tweeters from the study were female.

The researchers say that the most common words used to describe the migraines were “worst,” at nearly 15%, and “massive,” at 8%.

But migraines do more than cause a “massive” amount of pain. According to WHO, the 2004 Global Burden of Disease Study reveals that on its own, migraine accounted for 1.3% of years lost due to disability.

Additionally, this condition is associated with both personal and societal burdens of pain, disability, damaged quality of life and monetary costs.

“Headache has been underestimated, under-recognized and under-treated throughout the world,” the organization states.