Mark Gilbert's Blog

Science and technology, served light and fluffy.

What a Headache

For the last several months, I’ve been working on a new project that I’m tentatively calling "iSelf".  Here is the official version 0.1.0:


I’m building my own, custom wearable.  And before you ask, the answer is "no", the title of this blog does not refer to the spaghetti of breadboarding wires you see before you.  The title actually refers to what I hope iSelf will help me with.  Allow me to set this story up.

For more than a decade, I’ve had daily headaches.  I first noticed them as such in 2003.  At that point, I would feel the headache coming on mid- to late afternoon.  I would take two Excedrin with dinner, and by 8pm or so the headache would be gone.  About 2011 or 2012, I started noticing that the headaches were getting longer.  I’d feel them start earlier in the day, and it would be later into the evening before the Excedrin would kick in.

Then during the summer of 2013, I realized that I was waking up with a headache, and Excedrin was no longer knocking them out.  In other words, I’ve had a headache all day, every day, for the last two years.

In late 2013, and then much of 2014, I got even more serious about trying to determine what was causing them.  I spoke with my general doctor about it.  He had me try a couple of different medications.  When those didn’t work, he referred me to a neurologist, who tried a few different medications, which didn’t work.  He also had my head examined – both an MRI (which you can read about here).  Thankfully, nothing abnormal turned up.  They found a brain, and it showed no signs of bleeding or tumors.  Check and check.

I also went to see an ear, nose, and throat doctor.  Even after a CT scan, two home sleep studies, and a third sleep study in an overnight lab, he wasn’t able to find anything wrong with me either.

Whenever I went in for an exam or a follow-up, the doctors would usually ask me "on a scale from 1-10, how is your headache today?" and I would respond with some number.  But that question was asked once every two weeks, at most.  I don’t have the same headache every day – there are some days it is easier to move it to the background than others.  But why?  What is influencing the "badness level"?  If I can’t find a solution to the headaches and make them go away completely, could I find out if there is some external influence affecting their quality?  To answer that, I needed data – lots and lots of data.

So, in late 2014 I started sketching out what kind of data would I want to collect, and how could I analyze it.  I decided that taking readings every 30 minutes of the headache "badness level" was probably a good place to start, but I also wanted to capture things like what temperature and barometric pressure was I being exposed to (two things I’ve read affect headaches in some people).  I also wanted to record how long I stood, sat, and walked in a day.  That’s where the wearable comes in.

I considered buying an existing, off-the-shelf wearable, but after looking at a dozen different brands, I couldn’t find one that recorded the data points I wanted, and as far as I could tell none of them let me get at the raw data that they did collect.  They all had their own cloud- or mobile apps for displaying really pretty, interactive charts, but I none had anything like a "download to Excel" feature.  So, custom it was.

iSelf v0.1.0 features a temperature/pressure sensor that I scavenged off of the stratoballoon instrument pack, a microSD card reader/writer (also from the stratoballon), and an Arduino Micro as the processor.  I’m getting very near to the point where the software is ready, and I can solder the components together, get a case for it, and be able to wear it on my belt like a phone.

Eventually I’ll add an IMU (which stands for inertial measurement unit, a combination of a 3-axis accelerometer and a 3-axis gyroscope) so I can track how long I am sitting/standing/walking, and a Bluetooth Low Energy (LE) module so I can communicate with my mobile device.  The plan is for iSelf to send a signal to the mobile device (initially my Nook, but eventually a phone) to tell me to take a survey every 30 minutes.  I’ll answer one or more questions (how bad is your headache right now, are you hungry, etc.), and the mobile device will transmit the answers back to iSelf, which will add them to the raw data points that it collects directly.  At night, I’ll download the day’s data.

Once I have several weeks’ worth of data, I can start asking questions like "does my headache get worse when I’m hungry?" or "does my headache get better when I’m exposed to higher temperatures?"  I’ll hopefully be able to spot some patterns in the data, and that will allow me to create some experiments to run on myself.

There is a crazy number of things that can cause headaches.  I’ve eliminated a few.  At worst, iSelf will allow me to eliminate a few more.  At best, it will show me a couple that contribute.

July 3, 2015 Posted by | Embedded/Wearable, Science | 1 Comment