Migraine is a very common and disabling illness. Picking an agent that is best for each individual patient requires considering the patient’s history, lifestyle, comorbid conditions, and individual preferences.
Migraine headaches are a common cause of disability in the United States, affecting approximately 27 million American adults, or 17.1% of women and 5.6% of men. To help better define migraines, the term classical migraine has been replaced with migraine with aura and non-classical migraine is now referred to as migraine without aura. Chronic migraine, which affects 3.2 million Americans (2%), is defined as having migraine symptoms for at least 15 days per month, lasting at least 4 hours, and for longer than 3 months in duration. This is in contrast to episodic migraine, which causes symptoms on less than 15 days per month. Current treatment for chronic migraine is divided into acute, abortive agents (analgesics, triptans, ergots, etc.) and medications that will prevent migraine onset.
This review will highlight the current definitions of migraines as well as treatment options.
A recurring headache that is of moderate or severe intensity, and is triggered by migraine-precipitating factors, usually is considered to be migraine. Precipitating factors can include stress, certain foods, weather changes, smoke, hunger, fatigue, hormones, and so on. Migraine without aura is a chronic idiopathic headache disorder with attacks lasting 4 to 72 hours. Status migrainosis applies to migraine headaches that exceed 72 hours. Migraine features often include a unilateral location and a throbbing or pulsating nature to the pain. There may be associated nausea, photophobia, phonophobia, or dizziness. Further characteristics include a positive relationship with menses, decreased frequency during pregnancy, increased pain with physical activity, and history of migraine in first-degree relatives. It has been reported by 70 to 75% of migraine patients that they have a first-degree relative with a history of migraines.
Patients who suffer from migraines often have colder hands and feet compared with controls, and the prevalence of motion sickness is much higher in migraine patients. Although most patients will not have all of these characteristics, there are certain diagnostic criteria that have been established by the International Headache Society for the definite diagnosis of migraine. Distinguishing a milder migraine without aura from a moderate or severe tension headache may be difficult, and it is not surprising when “pure” migraine medications are effective for severe tension-type headaches.
Recurrent, repeated attacks of throbbing or severely aching headache are generally regarded as migraine, whether or not the patient has nausea, dizziness, photophobia, or phonophobia. The patient’s history is used to make the diagnosis of migraine. Physical examination and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) scans are helpful only in ruling out organic pathology. Recent-onset headaches need to be investigated with an MRI scan to rule out other organic disorders, particularly brain tumors. In addition to physical exam and imaging, a check of intraocular pressure (IOP) may be warranted. With new-onset headaches, an eye exam is always warranted.
Although the pain is unilateral in 50% of migraine patients, the entire head often becomes involved. The pain may be in the facial or the cervical areas, and often will shift sides from one occurrence to another. Most patients, however, suffer the severe pain on one favored side from attack to attack.
The typical migraine patient suffers one to five attacks in a month, but many patients average less than one (episodic) or more than 10 per month (chronic). The attack frequency varies with the seasons, and many patients can identify a time of year when their headaches increase significantly. Patients with chronic migraine may have 15 days a month of headache, and many even have 30 days/month, 24/7.
The pain of the migraine often follows a bell-shaped curve, with a gradual ascent, a peak for a number of hours, and then a slow decline. Occasionally, the pain may be at its peak within minutes of onset. Many patients with migraine suffer some degree of nausea during the attack, and some experience vomiting as well. The nausea often is mild, and some patients are not bothered by it. Many patients state that the headache is lessened after they vomit. Diarrhea may occur, and is usually mild to moderate. The presence of diarrhea renders the use of rectal suppositories impossible.
Lightheadedness often accompanies the migraine, and syncope may occur. Most patients become sensitive to bright lights, sounds, and/or odors. Between migraine attacks, many patients retain the photophobia, and it is common for migraine patients to wear sunglasses most of the time. Sensitivity to bright lights is a distinctive migraine characteristic.
Pallor of the face is common during a migraine; flushing may occur as well, but is seen less often. Patients do complain of feeling excessively hot or cold during an attack, and the skin temperature may increase or decrease on the side with pain. Patients with migraines often experience tenderness of the scalp that may linger for hours or days after the migraine pain has ceased. This tenderness may actually occur during the prodrome of the migraine. Both vascular and muscular factors contribute to the scalp tenderness. Autonomic disturbances are relatively common, such as pupillary miosis or dilation, rhinorrhea, eye tearing, and nasal stuffiness. These also are symptoms of cluster headache, including the sharp pain about one eye or temple.
Alterations of mood are seen with many patients before, during, and after migraine attacks. Patients are usually anxious, tired, or depressed. They often feel “washed out” after an attack, but a calm or even an euphoric state occasionally is seen as a postdrome to the migraine. Rarely, euphoria or exhilaration may precede a migraine.
Weight gain due to fluid retention may occur, and begins prior to the onset of the migraine. At some point during the migraine, patients may experience polyuria. The weight gain is usually less than 4 lb., and is transient.
Approximately 20% of patients experience visual neurologic disturbances preceding or during the migraine; these auras may be as disturbing to the patient as the migraine pain itself. The visual symptoms usually last 15 to 20 minutes, and most often will be followed by the migraine headache. Most migraine sufferers experience the same aura with each migraine, but occasionally one person may have several types of auras. “The light of a flashbulb going off,” is the description many patients give to describe their aura. The visual hallucinations seen most often consist of spots, stars, lines (often wavy), color splashes, and waves resembling heat waves. The images may seem to shimmer, sparkle, or flicker. These visual occurrences are referred to as photopsia.
Fortification spectra are seen much less often than photopsia. They usually begin with a decrease in vision and visual hallucinations that are unformed. Within minutes, a paracentral scotoma becomes evident and this assumes a crescent shape, usually with zigzags. There often is associated shimmering, sparkling, or flickering at the edges of the scotoma.
Patients may experience a “graying out” of their vision, or a “white out” may occur. Some patients suffer complete visual loss, usually for some minutes. Photopsia may be experienced at the same time as the gray out, white out, or visual loss.
Miscellaneous Neurologic Symptoms
Numbness or tingling (paresthesias) commonly are experienced by patients as part of the migraine. These are experienced most often in one hand and forearm, but may be felt in the face, periorally, or in both arms and legs. Like the visual disturbances, they often last only minutes preceding the pain, but the numbness may continue for hours, and at times the paresthesias are severe. The sensory disturbances usually increase slowly over 15 to 25 minutes, differentiating them from the more rapid pace seen in epilepsy.
Paralysis of the limbs may occur, but this is rare. This is occasionally seen as a familial autosomal dominant trait, and the term familial hemiplegic migraine is applied to this form. With the weakness, aphasia or slurred speech may also occur, and sensory disturbances are seen ipsilateral to the weakness. Vertigo and/or dizziness are often experienced during migraine, and may be disabling. “Migraine associated vertigo” has become a common diagnosis. At times, the dizziness is more disabling to patients than the other symptoms. Ataxia may occur, but is not common. Rarely, multiple symptoms of brain stem dysfunction occur, with the term basilar migraine being applied to this type of syndrome. The attack usually begins with visual disturbances (most often photopsia), followed by ataxia, vertigo, paresthesias, and other brain stem symptoms. These severe neurologic symptoms usually abate after 15 to 30 minutes, and are followed by a headache. This type of migraine often stops over months or years, and the patient is simply left with migraine headaches without neurologic dysfunction.
Workup for Migraine
As noted, when patients present with a long history of typical migraine attacks, and the headaches are essentially unchanged, scans of the head usually are not absolutely necessary. Whether to do any testing at all depends on the physician’s clinical suspicion of organic pathology. Sound clinical judgment, based on patient history and a physical exam, is crucial in deciding who needs which exam.
In addition to the MRI and CT scan, tests that are sometimes useful for diagnosis of headache include lumbar puncture, IOP testing, CT scan of the sinuses, and blood tests. A magnetic resonance angiogram (MRA) allows the detection of most intracranial aneurysms.
The problems that need to be excluded in a patient with new-onset migraine include sinus disease, meningitis, glaucoma, brain tumor, arteritis, subarachnoid hemorrhage, idiopathic intracranial hypertension( or low pressure headache, which is positional in nature: basically almost gone when the patient lies down), hydrocephalus, pheochromocytoma, stroke or transient ischemic attack, internal carotid artery dissection, and systemic illness.
With migraine and chronic daily headache sufferers, avoidance of triggers should be emphasized. The most common triggers are stress (both during and after stress), weather changes, perimenstruation, missing meals, bright lights or sunlight, under- and oversleeping, food sensitivity, perfume, cigarette smoke, exercise, and sexual activity. Some foods can be headache triggers, but foods tend to be overemphasized. In general, headache patients do better with regular schedules, eating three or more meals per day and going to bed and awaking at the same time every day. Many patients state that “I can tell the weather with my head”. Barometric changes and storms are typical weather culprits, but some patients do poorly on bright “sun-glare” days.
Regarding stress as a trigger, it is not so much extreme stress, but daily hassles that increase headaches. When patients are faced with overwhelming daily stress, particularly when they are not sleeping well at night, headaches can be much worse the next day.
Psychotherapy is extremely useful for many headache patients with regard to stress management, coping, life issues, family-of-origin issues, and so on. Although psychotherapy may be recommended, it is crucial to legitimize the headaches as a physical condition; headaches are not a “psychological” problem, but rather a physical one that stress may exacerbate. Once one inherits the brain chemistry for headache, these triggers come into play; without the inherited genetics, most people may have stress/weather changes/hormonal changes, but not experience a headache.
Managing stress with exercise, yoga/Pilates/meditation, etc., often will reduce the frequency of headaches. The ideal would be for the patient to take a class weekly, then do the stretches and breathing for 10 minutes a day. Patients may experience some relief from associated neck or back pain. Relaxation techniques such as biofeedback, deep breathing, and imaging also may be helpful for daily headache patients, particularly when stress is a factor.
Many migraine patients have accompanying neck pain and physical therapy may help; acupuncture or chiropractic treatments occasionally help. Certain physical therapists “specialize” in head and neck pain. Massage may be effective, but the relief is often short-lived. Temporomandibular disorder (TMD), with clenching and/or bruxing, may exacerbate migraine; with TMD, physical therapy, a bite splint, and/or Botox may help. It often “takes a village” to help a person with pain, and we recruit other “villagers”, such as physical therapists or psychotherapists.
Although caffeine can help headaches, overuse may increase headaches. Whether in coffee, caffeine pills, or combination analgesics, patients must limit total caffeine intake. The maximum amount of caffeine taken each day varies from person to person, depending on sleep patterns, presence of anxiety, and sensitivity to possible rebound headaches. In general, caffeine should be limited to no more than 150 or 200 mg a day. Some migraineurs do well by completely decaffeinating themselves; it often is worthwhile to try this approach.
Foods to Avoid
As noted, food sensitivities are not that common. Patients tend to focus on the foods, as they are a tangible trigger that one can control (as opposed to weather, for example). However, most people are sensitive to only two or three types of food in the diet. If a particular food is going to cause a headache, it usually will occur within 3 hours of eating.
The most common first-line treatment for migraines includes triptans. More than 200 million patients worldwide have used triptans. The most effective way to use triptans is to take them early in the headache—the earlier a patient takes these agents the better the effect. Sumatriptan is an extremely effective migraine-abortive medication with minimal side effects. It is effective for approximately 70% of patients and is the gold standard in abortive headache treatment. The usual dose is one tablet every 3 hours, as needed; maximum dose, two tablets per day. However, clinicians do need to limit triptan use (ideally, 3 days per week) to avoid rebound headaches or medication overuse headache (MOH). See section on rebound/MOH.
Triptans are helpful for moderate as well as more severe migraines. Certain patients tolerate one of the triptans better than another, and it is worthwhile to try several in an individual patient. Triptans are an excellent choice for migraine patients who are not at risk for coronary artery disease (CAD). Patients in their 50s or 60s can use these drugs, but they should be prescribed cautiously, and only in those patients who have been screened for CAD. Over the 23 years that triptans have been available, serious side effects have been few; they appear to be much safer than was previously thought in 1993.
For patients who cannot tolerate triptans, there are a number of other effective non-triptan first-line approaches, including diclofenac potassium powder(Cambia), Excedrin Migraine, naproxen, ketorolac(po/IM/nasal:”Sprix nasal spray”), ibuprofen, and Prodrin (similar to Midrin, but without the sedative). We often combine 2 first-line approaches (a triptan and a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) combination, for instance).
In general, drugs containing ergotamine (also called ergots) are effective second-line therapy for migraines. They were the first anti-migraine drugs available, but they have many side effects, and at most, should be used only 2 days per week. Dihydroergotamine (DHE) is the safest ergot derivative. DHE is primarily a “venoconstrictor”, with little arterial effects. This renders it very unlikely to cause cardiac problems. Indeed, since its introduction in 1945, DHE has been remarkably safe. Intravenous DHE is a very effective migraine-abortive agent administered in the office or emergency room. Availability and cost of DHE have been a problem. Nasal (Migranal Nasal Spray) and inhaled forms of DHE (soon to be released) have been found to be safe and effective as well. Barbiturates and opioids have been studied and are effective, but because of the risk for addiction, should be used sparingly. For severe prolonged migraines, corticosteroids (oral, IV, or intramuscular) often are effective. It is important to use low doses of steroids, for only 1 to 3 days per month.
Many patients have 3 to 6 abortives on their shelf: triptan, NSAIDs, Excedrin, an anti-nausea med, and a painkiller (opioid/butalbital). They use each in different situations, for different types and degrees of headache.
A new therapy has emerged, transcranial magnetic stimulation(TMS). The patient uses a hand held device applied to the back of the head, for an acute migraine attack. The first TMS approved(in Dec., 2013) is the Spring TMS. The official indication is migraine with aura. Studies have been positive on TMS devices over a number of years. Time will tell as to the efficacy. The low-dose home TMS appears to be very safe. People rent the unit, and use 3 or 4 pulses twice daily, as a preventive. TMS may also be used abortively, but preventive use is the most promising.
Muscle relaxants (carisoprodol, diazepam) or tranquilizers (clonazepam, alprazolam) occasionally are useful, primarily to aid in sleeping. Intravenous sodium valproate (Depacon) is safe and can be effective. The atypical antipsychotics, such as olanzapine (Zyprexa) or quetiapine (Seroquel), occasionally may be useful on an as-needed basis. In the emergency room, IV administration of antiemetic agents such as prochlorperazine (Compazine, others) or metoclopramide (Reglan) may be useful. Certain preventive medications, such as valproic acid (Depakote), topiramate (Topamax), and also amitriptyline, may be useful on an as-needed basis, utilizing low doses every 4 to 6 hours. The antihistamine diphenhydramine is occasionally useful when administered intramuscularly. At times, patients may have injections for home use: ketorolac, orphenadrine, sumatriptan, diphenhydramine, promethazine, etc.
Medication Overuse Headache(MOH)
Much is written about MOH, with many patients diagnosed with this condition. Often a patient will be overusing abortive meds (medication overuse), but not be suffering “rebound/withdrawal” headaches (medication overuse, but NOT medication overuse headache). Up until recently, all NSAIDS were lumped under “meds that cause MOH”, and this simply is not true. For some patients, opioids, butalbital, and high caffeine containing meds cause MOH. Triptans are occasionally implicated as well. However, for most patients with chronic migraine, they have daily(or near-daily) headaches, the preventives may not be effective, and they use abortives in an attempt to get through the day.
There are more questions in the area of MOH than we have answers. The pathophysiology of MOH is unclear. Some patients will have MOH from 2 Excedrin daily, while others do not suffer from MOH consuming 8 per day. When patients are using frequent abortives, we often withdraw them from that abortive, push preventives, and attempt to minimize analgesics. However, for many chronic migraine sufferers, the preventives are not very effective. For those sufferers, abortives allow them to live with a reasonable quality of life.
There is no algorithm to determine who is to go on preventive headache medication. The number of monthly headaches is one factor, along with comorbidities. Patients have to be willing to take daily medication (many do not want any daily meds). There is no absolute rule that applies to headache treatment. For a patient with two headaches a month that are severe, prolonged, and not relieved by drugs, preventive medicine might be used. On the other hand, for the person who has five headaches a month, but can obtain relief from Excedrin or a triptan, preventive medicine may not be optimal. The choice of who qualifies for medication depends on the patient’s age, medical and psychiatric comorbidities, and frequency and severity of the migraine, as well as the patient’s preference. Comorbidities often determine which preventive meds are used. If a patient has HTN, a med for blood pressure will be used. When patients concurrently suffer with anxiety or depression, various antidepressants are utilized for the headache and mood disorder. We want to minimize meds, and treating 2 conditions with one medication is ideal.
In using medication, a realistic goal is to decrease the headache severity by 40% to 70%, not to completely eliminate the headaches. It is wonderful when the headaches are 90% improved, but the idea is also to minimize medication. “Clinical meaningful pain relief” is usually around a 30% improvement. Most patients need to be willing to settle for moderate improvement. Preventives may take 3 to 6 weeks to work, and “educated guesswork” often is used to find the best approach for each patient. In the long run, preventive medications are effective for approximately 50% of patients. The other 50% scramble with various abortives.
As noted, patients should play an active role in medication choice. Preventive medications should be selected depending on the patient’s comorbidities, GI system, medication sensitivities, and the like. Fatigue and/or weight gain are major reasons why patients abandon a preventive medication. Headache patients commonly complain of fatigue, and tend to give up on medications that increase tiredness. A patient’s occupation also may guide the caregiver away from certain medications; for example, an accountant may not be able to tolerate the memory problems associated with topiramate. Side effects are possible with any medication; the patient must be prepared to endure mild side effects in order to achieve results.
First-line Preventive Medications for Migraine
Botulinum Toxin A
Botulinum toxin A (Botox) has been studied extensively in patients with migraines. Nearly 4 million people have had botulinum toxin A injections for headache. Botulinum toxin A has been found to significantly improve quality of life and reduce headache impact.4 Botox is the only botlinum toxin A FDA-approved for treatment of chronic migraine. It is relatively safe and only takes a few minutes to inject. One set of injections may decrease headaches for 1 to 3 months. There also is a cumulative benefit, where the headaches continue to improve over 1 year of injections. Botox may be safer than many of the medications that are used for headache. Botox does not cause the “annoying” side effects that are commonly encountered with preventives.
Natural Supplements and Herbs
Feverfew, Petadolex (butterbur), and magnesium oxide have all proven effective in double-blind studies as migraine preventives. Of these, Petadolex has been the most effective.
Petadolex is a purified form of the herb butterbur and is made of extracted plant certified by the German Health Authority. The herb preparation is commonly used in Europe, and has been found to be successful in preventing migraines in several well-designed blind studies. The usual dose is 100mg. per day, and many increase this to 150mg. daily(all at once, or in 2 divided doses). Earlier concerns about carcinogenesis with this family of herbs have decreased with the use of Petadolex. Patients have occasionally experienced GI upset or a bad taste in the mouth, but Petadolex is usually well tolerated. It is prudent to stop it every three months or so. Petadolex is available by calling 1-888-301-1084, through www.petadolex.com., or at Amazon.com.
Magnesium helps many systems in the body to function, especially the muscles and nerves. It has been shown that magnesium levels in the brain of migraine patients tend to be lower than normal. Magnesium oxide is used as a supplement to maintain adequate magnesium in the body. A dose of 400 or 500 mg per day can be used as a preventive; tablets are found in most pharmacies. However, mild GI side effects may limit use. There are also drug interactions that may occur; as always, consult your physician. There are tablets, as well as powdered versions available.
Feverfew has been demonstrated to be mildly effective in some patients for prevention of migraine headache. Feverfew can cause a mild increased tendency toward bleeding, and should be discontinued two weeks prior to any surgery. The problem with many herbal supplements is quality control. The amount of parthenolide (the active ingredient in feverfew) varies widely from farm to farm; certain farms consistently have better quality than others. The usual dose is 2 capsules each morning; there is a liquid form available. Patients occasionally will be allergic to feverfew, and it should not be used during pregnancy. Miscellaneous herbs/supplements have been used, particularly vitamin B2. CoQ10 and fish oil have also been studied. These occasionally help, but are less effective than Petadolex.
Topiramate is an effective migraine preventive, without the weight gain commonly encountered with the other meds. While usually fairly well tolerated, common side effects include memory difficulties(“spaciness”), and tingling. In higher doses, topiramate increases the risk for kidney stones. Topiramate does decrease appetite, leading to weight loss for some patients. This anorexic effect tends to disappear after several months. The usual dose is 50 to 100mg daily, but some do well on as little as 25mg.. The dose may be pushed to 300 or 400mg. per day, in the absence of significant side effects. Topiramate is primarily used for migraine prevention, but has also been utilized for cluster and tension headache as well. Topiramate may cause a metabolic acidosis, with lower bicarbonate levels(and increased chloride). The acidosis may lead to the tingling, which sometimes is alleviated by increasing potassium-containing fruits/vegetables(or adding potassium).
Valproate, or divalproex sodium, (Depakote) is a long-time staple, popular for migraine prevention. It is usually well tolerated in the lower doses used for headaches, however, the generic may not be as effective. Liver functions need to be monitored in the beginning of treatment. Valproate also is one of the primary mood stabilizers for bipolar disorder. Oral Depakote ER (500 mg) is an excellent once-daily, long-acting agent. As with most preventives, valproate needs 4 to 6 weeks to become effective.
The β-blocker propranolol also is FDA-approved as a preventive agent for migraines. Long-acting oral propranolol (Inderal), for example, is very useful in combination with the tricyclic antidepressant amitriptyline. Dosage begins with the long-acting agent given at 60 mg per day, and is usually kept between 60 and 120 mg per day. Lower doses are sometimes effective, such as 20 mg twice a day of propranolol. Other β-blockers also are effective, such as metoprolol (Toprol XL) and atenolol. Some of these are easier to work with than propranolol because they are scored tablets, and metoprolol and atenolol have fewer respiratory effects. Depression may occur. β-blockers are useful for those migraine patients with concurrent hypertension, tachycardia, mitral valve prolapse, and panic/anxiety disorders. Bystolic (nebivolol) is another β-blocker that may be helpful for the prevention of headaches, and has fewer respiratory side effects than other agents. Bystolic probably has the least amount of side effects among the β-blockers.
As noted, amitriptyline is an effective, inexpensive agent that is useful for the prevention of daily headaches and insomnia. As a preventative agent, amitriptyline is prescribed at low doses and taken at night. Sedation, weight gain, dry mouth, and constipation are common side effects. Other tricyclic antidepressants such as doxepin and protriptyline can be effective for migraine. Nortriptyline is similar to amitriptyline, with somewhat fewer side effects. These also are used for daily tension-type headaches. Protriptyline is one of the few older antidepressants that does not cause weight gain. However, anticholinergic side effects are increased with protriptyline; protriptyline is more effective for tension headache than for migraine. Although selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are used, they are more effective for anxiety and depression than for migraine.
Naproxen is a very useful agent for the treatment of daily headaches, as well as for younger women suffering from menstrual migraine. Naproxen is nonsedating, but frequently causes GI upset or pain. Effective as an abortive, it may be combined with other first-line preventive medications. Other NSAIDs can similarly be used for migraine prevention. As with all anti-inflammatories, GI side effects increase as people age, and therefore NSAIDs are used more often in the younger population. Blood tests are needed to monitor liver and kidney function.
Second-line Migraine Preventive Therapy
There are a number of second-line migraine treatments. The anti-seizure medication gabapentin has been demonstrated to be mildly useful in migraine and tension headache prophylaxis. In a large study on migraine, doses averaged approximately 2,400 mg per day, but lower doses are usually prescribed. Some patients do well with very low doses (200 or 300 mg per day). Sedation and dizziness may be a problem; however, gabapentin does not appear to cause end-organ damage, and weight gain is relatively minimal. Gabapentin can be used as an adjunct to other first-line preventive medications. A newer drug, pregabalin (Lyrica), has a similar mechanism of action to gabapentin. Lyrica is fairly safe, but sedation and weight gain often occur.
A safe, non-addicting muscle relaxant, tizanidine is useful for migraine and chronic daily headache. Tizanidine may be used on an as-needed basis for milder headaches, or for neck or back pain. Cyclobenzaprine (10 mg) is helpful for sleeping, and helps some with migraine and chronic daily headache.
There have been a number of studies on the efficacy of using angiotensin receptor blockers (ARB) and the angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors (ACE’s) for the prevention of migraine. ARBs are preferred because of minimal side effects. Examples include losartan (Cozaar) and candesartan (Atacand). These may be useful for the patient with hypertension and migraine. Side effects include dizziness, among others, but they are usually well tolerated, with no sedation or weight gain.
Similar to the ARB’s, the calcium channel antagonists have been utilized for migraine prevention. Verapamil ER (extended release) is the most commonly used form, with doses ranging from 120mg daily up to 360mg. per day. Verapamil is probably more effective as a cluster headache preventive.
Polypharmacy is common in migraine prevention. Two first-line medications often are used together and the combination of two preventives can be more effective than a single drug alone. For example, valproate often is combined with an antidepressant. Amitriptyline may be combined with propranolol(or other β-blockers), particularly if the tachycardia of the amitriptyline needs to be offset by a β-blocker; this combination is commonly used for “mixed” headaches (migraine plus chronic daily headache.) NSAIDs may be combined with most of the other first-line preventive medications. Thus, naproxen often is given with amitriptyline, propranolol, or verapamil. Naproxen is employed simultaneously as preventive and abortive medication. Polypharmacy commonly is employed when significant comorbidities (anxiety, depression, hypertension, etc.) are present. Unfortunately, polypharmacy brings the risk of increased side effects.
Venlafaxine (Effexor XR) is an excellent antidepressant, occasionally helpful for the prevention of migraine. Used primarily as an SSRI at lower doses; at higher doses (100-150 mg) norepinephrine also is increased. In fact, antidepressants with dual mechanisms (serotonin and norepinephrine) are more effective for pain and headache. Another similar medication is duloxetine(Cymbalta), with typical doses being 30mg to 60mg daily. Cymbalta has several pain indications, but is probably more effective for moods than for headache.
Migraine is a common and disabling illness. Outside of meds, it is important for migraineurs to watch their headache triggers, and exercise regularly. Physical therapy and/or psychotherapy may be of help (“it takes a village”). There is no good algorithm for determining which medication is best. Each patient is unique, and comorbidities drive where we go with treatment. The goal is to decrease head pain, while minimizing medications. NOTE: This is an updated version of an article that appeared in the July, 2014 issue of Practical Pain Management.
Lipton RB et al on behalf of the AMPP Advisory Group. Migraine prevalence, disease burden, and the need for preventive therapy. Neurology. 2007;68:343-349.
Headache Classification Subcommittee of the International Headache Society. The International Classification of Headache Disorders. 2nd ed. Oxford, England: Blackwell Publishing; 2003.
Gardner KL. Genetics of migraine: an update. Headache. 2006;46(suppl 1):S19-S24.
Lipton RB, Varon SF, Grosbert B, et al. Onabotulinumtoxin A improves quality of life and reduces impact of chronic migraine. Neurology. 2011;77(15):1465-1472.
Mathew NT, Rapoport A, Saper J, Magnus L, et al. Efficacy of gabapentin in migraine prophylaxis. Headache. 2001;41(2):119-128.
Robbins L. Robbins Headache Clinic. http://www.chicagoheadacheclinic.com