Use of the emergency department for severe headache. A population-based study

Benjamin W. Friedman, Daniel Serrano, Michael Reed, Merle Diamond, Richard B. Lipton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

65 Scopus citations


Background. - Although headache is a common emergency department (ED) chief complaint, the role of the ED in the management of primary headache disorders has rarely been assessed from a population perspective. We determined frequency of ED use and risk factors for use among patients suffering severe headache. Methods. - As part of the American Migraine Prevalence and Prevention study, a validated self-administered questionnaire was mailed to 24,000 severe headache sufferers, who were randomly drawn from a larger sample constructed to be sociodemographically representative of the US population. Participants were asked a series of questions on headache management, healthcare system use, sociodemographic features, and number of ED visits for management of headache in the previous 12 months. In keeping with the work of others, "frequent" ED use was defined as a particpant's report of 4 or more visits to the ED for treatment of a headache in the previous 12 months. Headaches were categorized into specific diagnoses using a validated methodology. Results. - Of 24,000 surveys, 18,514 were returned, and 13,451 (56%) provided complete data on ED use. Sociodemographic characteristics did not differ substantially between responders and nonresponders. Among the 13,451 responders, over the course of the previous year, 12,592 (94%) did not visit the ED at all, 415 (3%) visited the ED once, and 444 (3%) visited the ED more than once. Patients with severe episodic tension-type headache were less likely to use the ED than patients with severe episodic migraine (OR 0.4 [95% CI: 0.3, 0.6]). Frequent ED use was reported by 1% of the total sample or 19% (95% CI: 17%, 22%) of subjects who used the ED in the previous year, although frequent users accounted for 51% (95% CI: 49%, 53%) of all ED visits. Predictors of ED use included markers of disease severity, elevated depression scores, low socioeconomic status, and a predilection for ED use for conditions other than headache. Conclusions. - Most individuals suffering severe headaches do not use the ED over the course of a single year. The majority of ED visits for severe headache are accounted for by a small subset of all ED users. Increasing disease severity and depression are the most readily addressable factors associated with ED use.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)21-30
Number of pages10
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2009


  • Emergency department
  • Headache
  • Healthcare access
  • Migraine

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neurology
  • Clinical Neurology


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