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Headache Sends More Than 7 Million Americans to Seek Professional Help

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AHRQ News and Numbers

Release date: March 7, 2006

Many people simply take medicines purchased over the counter when headache strikes, but in 2002-2003 an annual average of 7.5 million adult Americans age 18 and over purchased prescribed medicines and/or visited a medical office, hospital outpatient department, or hospital emergency room to receive treatment for their headaches, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services' Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).

AHRQ's Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS) estimates that:

  • Insurers and patients spent an average total of $4.3 billion per year in 2002-2003 to pay for prescribed medicines and ambulatory care to treat headaches.
  • Roughly 60 percent of the money went to pay for ambulatory care and 40 percent for prescribed medicines.

Who seeks medical help the most for headache?

  • According to the MEPS survey, adult women were more than 3 times as likely as adult men to be treated for a migraine or other headache (5.3 percent versus 1.6 percent).
  • Adults in the 45 to 64 age bracket were more likely to obtain medical care and/or prescribed medicines for headache (4.5 percent) than younger adults or adults age 65 and older, who were the least likely (1.9 percent).

MEPS collects information from a nationally representative sample of U.S. households about health care use, expenses, access, health status and quality. The survey does not include people in nursing homes, the military or other institutions. The data are in MEPS Statistical Brief No. 115: Health Service Use and Expenses for Migraines and Other Headaches, 2002-2003 (Average Annual Estimates), available at [PDF Help].

AHRQ's other health care data program, the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project (HCUP) found that 77,000 Americans were hospitalized for migraine and other headaches in 2003.

  • Hospitals charged a total of $813 million for migraine and other headache hospitalizations in 2003. This figure does not include physician charges since these are billed separately.
  • About half the patients hospitalized were ages 18 to 44, followed by those in the 45 to 64 age group (30 percent).
  • Only 10 percent of admissions were for patients age 65 to 84, while 8 were for percent for patients ages 1 through 17.
  • Roughly 74 percent of patients hospitalized for migraine or other headache were women and 26 percent were men.
  • The HCUP data reflect a gender difference similar to that estimated by MEPS for ambulatory care and prescribed medicine purchases to treat headaches.

HCUP comprises a family of hospital and other health care databases and related software tools developed through a Federal-State-industry partnership and sponsored by AHRQ. The hospital inpatient data on headache was drawn from HCUPnet. To access this online statistical tool go to

For more information, please contact Bob Isquith at or call (301) 427-1539.


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