Many headache sufferers get unneeded scans

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About one in every eight doctor visits for a headache ends with the patient receiving a brain scan, despite guidelines discouraging doctors from performing the scans for headaches or migraines.

Researchers from the University of Michigan Medical School examined a database of headache-related doctor visits, which included 51.1 million patient visits between 2007 and 2010. They found 12 percent of all visits ended with an MRI or CT scan, which come to a total cost of about $1 billion a year. The number of people getting scans has risen since several national groups, including neurology and radiology groups, issued guidelines which discourage physicians from performing brain scans on patients who complain of headache or migraine. The study authors noted this could be because patients demand the scans.

"There's solid research showing that the number of times you find serious issues on these scans in headache patients is about the same as that for a randomly chosen group of non-headache patients," study lead Brian Callaghan, M.D., M.S., UM neurologist, was quoted as saying. "Lots of guidelines say we shouldn't do this – including ones from neurology and radiology groups – but yet we still do it a lot. This is a source of tremendous cost in health care without a lot of evidence to justify the cost.”

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