A new study by the Hartford HealthCare Headache Center in partnership with women’s health providers suggests that a knowledge gap among women’s primary care providers could be leading to the underdiagnosis and inadequate treatment of migraines in women.

The online survey completed by 115 women’s healthcare providers in Connecticut found that OBGYNs serve as primary care providers for one-third of their patients and that the majority was not prescribing preventative medication for patients with migraines. Almost half were not prescribing any migraine-specific medications.

Despite 82 percent of respondents saying they feel very comfortable or somewhat comfortable with diagnosing migraine, only  58 percent reported routinely asking patients about headaches during their annual visit. The study also found that many providers are not referring patients for non-medication approaches to migraine treatment, including cognitive behavioral therapy, relaxation skills training, and biofeedback.

“We know that there can be many challenges with these types of referrals, including finding the right providers offering these services and insurance coverage,” said Allison Verhaak, PhD, one of study’s authors. “Following this study, we are looking forward to additional ways to collaborate with women’s healthcare providers around targeted educational programs, now that we know more about what is known and not known about migraine management in these settings.  Through this study, we learned that these providers were very open to having future educational opportunities for learning more about migraine treatment.”

According to the Migraine Research Foundation, 18 percent of American women suffer from migraines — three times the rate of men.

Symptoms include headache attacks lasting more than four hours, usually on one side of the head, moderate to severe in intensity, possibly aggravated by movement or activity and accompanied with sensitivity to sound, light, nausea and/or vomiting. Up to one-third of people with migraine may experience migraine with aura often described before their headache pain begins accompanied with visual disturbances, sensory changes or speech or language problems.

Andrea Murphy, an APRN at the  Hartford HealthCare Headache Center provider and study co-author, said lack of a proper diagnosis and treatment can be amazingly frustrating and painful for patients.

“We recommend that women who experience headaches and migraine speak to their primary care providers and women’s health providers about their symptoms and ask about possible treatment options, including both medication and non-medication approaches to care,” said Murphy.  “If they are unable to find relief, it’s OK to ask for a referral to headache specialist or a neurologist.”