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Answers to Frequently Asked Questions About Migraine

  • Author Footnotes
    1 Dr Garza's headache fellowship was partially supported by GlaxoSmithKline.
    Ivan Garza
    Correspondence
    Address reprint requests and correspondence to Ivan Garza, MD, Department of Neurology, Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, 200 First St SW, Rochester, MN 55905
    Footnotes
    1 Dr Garza's headache fellowship was partially supported by GlaxoSmithKline.
    Affiliations
    Department of Neurology, Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, Rochester, Minn
    Search for articles by this author
  • Jerry W. Swanson
    Affiliations
    Department of Neurology, Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, Rochester, Minn
    Search for articles by this author
  • Author Footnotes
    1 Dr Garza's headache fellowship was partially supported by GlaxoSmithKline.
      Migraine is a common primary headache disorder associated with pronounced disability and hence marked economic and public health implications. Appropriate treatment is warranted to limit the associated disability migraineurs experience. Because of the heterogeneity of migraine, treatment plans must be individualized. The purpose of this article is to provide answers to frequently asked questions regarding the management of migraine.
      Migraine is a common disabling primary headache disorder associated with considerable reduction in work and school productivity.
      • Lipton RB
      • Stewart WF
      • Diamond S
      • Diamond ML
      • Reed M
      Prevalence and burden of migraine in the United States: data from the American Migraine Study II.
      The current International Classification of Headache Disorders provides diagnostic criteria for different subtypes of migraine disorders.
      • Headache Classification Subcommittee of the International Headache Society
      The International Classification of Headache Disorders.
      The economic and public health implications of the pronounced disability that migraineurs experience can be substantial. Therefore, proper management is of paramount concern. Pharmacological treatment of migraine is not always straightforward and may involve different strategies, such as acute treatment, preventive treatment, or combined therapy. The optimal therapeutic approach varies depending on each clinical scenario. Questions frequently arise when evaluating and designing a therapeutic plan for a migraineur. The following answers to frequently asked questions occurring in this setting are intended to assist clinicians in treating their patients with this primary headache disorder.

      WHY SHOULD A PRIMARY CARE PHYSICIAN BE INTERESTED IN MIGRAINE?

      Estimates of the US population indicate that approximately 30 million Americans (female to male ratio, 3:1) experience migraine. The overall prevalence of migraine in the United States is nearly 1 migraineur per 4 households.
      • Lipton RB
      • Stewart WF
      • Diamond S
      • Diamond ML
      • Reed M
      Prevalence and burden of migraine in the United States: data from the American Migraine Study II.
      Migraine is more common than many other disabling conditions, and the prevalence is greater than that of asthma and diabetes combined. Most migraineurs initially seek treatment of headache in primary care settings.
      • Lipton RB
      • Stewart WF
      • Simon D
      Medical consultation for migraine: results from the American Migraine Study.
      Furthermore, the vast majority of patients who consult a physician for episodic headaches have migraine.
      • Tepper SJ
      • Dahlof CG
      • Dowson A
      • et al.
      Prevalence and diagnosis of migraine in patients consulting their physician with a complaint of headache: data from the Landmark Study.
      Although the severity of migraine varies among individuals, studies indicate that the median pain intensity is 8 (on a scale of 0 to 10),
      • Dodick DW
      Diagnosing headache: clinical clues and clinical rules.
      and the median attack duration is 18 to 24 hours.
      • Dahlof CG
      • Solomon GD
      The burden of migraine to the individual sufferer: a review.
      Almost a third of migraineurs miss at least 1 day of work in a 3-month period.
      • Lipton RB
      • Stewart WF
      • Diamond S
      • Diamond ML
      • Reed M
      Prevalence and burden of migraine in the United States: data from the American Migraine Study II.
      Finally, most patients seek care from a primary care physician.

      WHAT ARE THE CRITERIA FOR THE DIAGNOSIS OF MIGRAINE?

      The current International Classification of Headache Disorders provides diagnostic criteria for up to 7 subtypes of migraine.
      • Headache Classification Subcommittee of the International Headache Society
      The International Classification of Headache Disorders.
      The complete classification is available at the International Headache Society Web site (http://www.i-h-s.org/). The criteria for migraine are listed in Table 1. Note that aura is not a requisite for the diagnosis of migraine because two thirds of patients with migraine never experience aura. Clinicians who rely on this symptom to make the diagnosis of migraine will miss many cases.
      TABLE 1Current Diagnostic Criteria for Migraine Without Aura
      • Headache Classification Subcommittee of the International Headache Society
      The International Classification of Headache Disorders.
      • A.
        At least 5 attacks fulfilling criteria B-D
      • B.
        Headache attacks lasting 4–72 hours (untreated or unsuccessfully treated)
      • C.
        Headache has at least 2 of the following characteristics:
        • 1.
          Unilateral location
        • 2.
          Pulsating quality
        • 3.
          Moderate or severe pain intensity
        • 4.
          Aggravation by or causing avoidance of routine physical activity (eg, walking or climbing stairs)
      • D.
        During headache at least 1 of the following
        • 1.
          Nausea and/or vomiting
        • 2.
          Photophobia and phonophobia
      • E.
        Not attributed to another disorder
      A brief 3-item self-administered migraine screener (Identification of Migraine) for patients with headache complaints presenting in primary care settings is available and consists of questions on disability, nausea, and photophobia.
      • Lipton RB
      • Dodick D
      • Sadovsky R
      • et al.
      A self-administered screener for migraine in primary care: The ID Migraine validation study.
      It is a valid and reliable screening instrument that potentially can improve migraine recognition in primary care. In the Identification of Migraine validation study of patients presenting to their physician with a chief complaint of headache, 3 questions were asked: Are you nauseated or sick to your stomach when you have a headache? Have the headaches limited your activities for a day or more in the last 3 months? Does light bother you when you have a headache? Using this tool, if 2 of 3 answers are affirmative, the positive predictive value of that patient having migraine headache is 93%. If all 3 answers are affirmative, the chance of that patient having migraine is 98%.

      IS THERE A PREFERRED ACUTE MEDICATION TREATMENT FOR PATIENTS WITH MIGRAINE?

      Migraine is a heterogeneous disorder that requires an individualized approach; therefore, no preferred approach can be used for all patients. Commonly used nonspecific analgesics for acute migraine attacks include acetaminophen, aspirin, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), cyclooxygenase 2 inhibitors, opiates, and combination analgesics that vary in content but may include any of the following: aspirin, acetaminophen, caffeine, isometheptene, butalbital, or codeine. Occasionally, over-the-counter analgesics alone such as NSAIDs or combination analgesics suffice to abort a migraine attack without a need for a migraine-specific medication. This approach is acceptable as long as limits are placed on their use to prevent medication-overuse headache. Clinicians need to be aware of the existence of migraine-specific drugs, such as triptans and dihydroergotamine, that can be used when nonspecific analgesics do not provide adequate relief. Studies have shown that in most patients these are more efficacious than the nonspecific analgesics, particularly when the attacks result in pronounced disability. Triptans in their various forms appear easier for patients to use with fewer adverse effects compared with dihydroergotamine.

      IS THERE A PREFERRED TRIPTAN?

      A response 2 hours after medication has been taken is the most common primary efficacy end point in published clinical trials of triptans.
      • Mathew NT
      • Loder EW
      Evaluating the triptans.
      In regard to oral triptans, frovatriptan and naratriptan are less effective using this parameter compared with the other 5. Oral sumatriptan, zolmitriptan, rizatriptan, almotriptan, and eletriptan all have 2-hour response rates ranging from 57% to 77%.
      • Rapoport AM
      • Tepper SJ
      • Sheftell FD
      • Kung E
      • Bigal ME
      Which triptan for which patient?.
      Table 2 lists the triptan agents with dosages and routes of administration. Great interindividual variation exists with respect to patient preference and response rate. Poor response to one triptan does not mean that all triptans will be ineffective. For example, “poor responders” to sumatriptan have obtained good response rates with other triptans.
      • Dodick DW
      Triptan nonresponder studies: implications for clinical practice.
      The initial triptan choice is frequently driven by the patient's health insurance formulary to minimize pharmaceutical costs for the patient. When pronounced nausea and vomiting occur early in the attack, a nonoral route such as nasal spray (sumatriptan, zolmitriptan) or subcutaneous injection (sumatriptan) is preferred.
      TABLE 2Administration and Dosages of Triptans
      TriptanAdministration (mg)Typical dose (mg)May repeat (h)Maximal dosage/d (mg)
      AlmotriptanTablet, 6.25, 12.512.5225
      EletriptanTablet, 20, 4040280
      FrovatriptanTablet, 2.52.527.5
      NaratriptanOral, 1, 2.52.545
      RizatriptanOral, 5, 1010230
      Oral disintegrating tablet, 5, 1010230
      SumatriptanTablet, 25, 50, 10050–1002200
      Nasal spray, 5, 2020240
      Subcutaneous, 66112
      ZolmitriptanTablet, 2.5, 52.5210
      Oral disintegrating tablet, 2.5, 5.02.5210
      Nasal spray, 55210

      ARE THERE CONTRAINDICATIONS TO THE USE OF TRIPTANS?

      Triptans are a safe class of drugs as long as a careful clinical history is obtained and contraindications are known. Triptans should not be used in the setting of known or suspected ischemic cardiac, cerebrovascular, or peripheral occlusive vascular disease. Uncontrolled hypertension needs to be treated, if present, before a triptan can be prescribed. Triptans should be avoided if other ergot agents or serotonin agonists have been used in the previous 24 hours or if monoamine oxidase inhibitors have been used in the prior 2 weeks.

      WHAT SHOULD BE DONE IF A TRIPTAN FAILS TO PROVIDE ADEQUATE RELIEF?

      If relief is inadequate, patients may not be taking triptans early in the attack, when they are most effective. Clinical and experimental evidence suggests that this is at least in part due to central sensitization. This phenomenon appears to occur since the migraine headache persists in almost80% of patients.
      • Burstein R
      • Yarnitsky D
      • Goor-Aryeh I
      • Ransil BJ
      • Bajwa ZH
      An association between migraine and cutaneous allodynia.
      A higher dose might be necessary if a lower dose is being used. Furthermore, the heterogeneity of migraine warrants the use of “stratified care” or “rational polytherapy” in which an optimal strategy is designed for each individual patient's attacks. If vomiting that occurs early in the attack prevents triptan absorption, adding an antiemetic (oral or suppository) such as metoclopramide, prochlorperazine, or promethazine can resolve this problem. Adding an NSAID like naproxen sodium at 550 mg or ketoprofen at 75 mg may increase the success of treatment. A flexible approach is necessary to find the optimal treatment strategy.
      • Mathew NT
      • Tfelt-Hansen P
      General and pharmacologic approach to migraine management.

      HOW OFTEN CAN ACUTE MEDICATION BE USED?

      Overuse of combination analgesics, opioids, ergot alkaloids, and/or triptans may cause medication-overuse headache.
      • Diener HC
      • Katasarva Z
      Analgesic/abortive overuse and misuse in chronic daily headache.
      Opioids, butalbital-containing combination analgesics, and aspirin/acetaminophen/caffeine combinations have the highest risk; triptans have moderate risk; and NSAIDs have the lowest risk associated with this problem.
      • Smith TR
      • Stoneman J
      Medication overuse headache from antimigraine therapy: clinical features, pathogenesis and management.
      We recommend limiting triptan or over-the-counter combination analgesic use to 9 or fewer days a month on average, butalbital-containing analgesics to 3 or fewer days a month, and NSAIDs to 15 or fewer days a month to prevent medication-overuse headache. The limits on butalbital-containing analgesics are due to their high potential for medication-overuse headache.

      WHAT CAN BE DONE WHEN A HEADACHE RECURS AFTER INITIAL SUCCESSFUL TREATMENT?

      If a headache recurs after initial successful treatment, the medication should be repeated. All triptans can be taken multiple times in a 24-hour period as long as the recommended time in-between doses has passed and the maximum daily dosage has not been exceeded. Another approach is to increase the individual dose if it is not at the upper limit allowed. Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, patients may need to try different triptans before finding the most effective one.
      • Rapoport AM
      • Tepper SJ
      • Sheftell FD
      • Kung E
      • Bigal ME
      Which triptan for which patient?.
      Delivery of the medication via a different route, ie, nasal or injection, may result in a better response. Finally, rational polytherapy can be used to target symptoms and response to medications. The initial strategy may need to be modified based on results of treatment.

      WHEN IS PROPHYLACTIC MEDICATION INDICATED?

      Preventive treatment should be considered when 1 or more of the following are present: recurring migraines that substantially interfere with the patient's daily activities despite acute treatment; frequent headaches (>2 per week); failure, overuse (exceeding the above discussed limits), or contraindication of acute treatment; adverse effects of acute treatment; and/or presence of rare migraine conditions that can potentially cause neurologic damage, such as hemiplegic migraine, basilar migraine, migraine with prolonged aura, or migrainous infarction.
      • Silberstein SD
      Practice parameter: evidence-based guidelines for migraine headache (an evidence-based review): report of the Quality Standards Subcommittee of the American Academy of Neurology.

      WHAT ARE THE GOALS OF MIGRAINE PROPHYLAXIS?

      The goals of migraine prophylaxis are to reduce attack frequency, severity, and duration; improve responsiveness to treatment of acute attacks; improve function and reduce disability; and decrease costs of migraine management.
      • Silberstein SD
      Practice parameter: evidence-based guidelines for migraine headache (an evidence-based review): report of the Quality Standards Subcommittee of the American Academy of Neurology.
      • Silberstein SD
      Preventive treatment of headaches.
      Timely prophylaxis may impede progression to a more treatment-resistant migraine disorder
      • Loder E
      • Biondi D
      General principles of migraine management: the changing role of prevention.
      ; however, this remains to be proved.

      WHAT IS AN “EFFECTIVE” PREVENTIVE AGENT?

      Because migraine is a chronic disorder, realistic expectations need to be discussed with patients to prevent frustration and therapeutic failure.
      • Rapoport AM
      • Tepper SJ
      • Sheftell FD
      • Kung E
      • Bigal ME
      Which triptan for which patient?.
      With “effective” prophylaxis, an individual patient should expect to obtain a reduction in the frequency of attacks by 50% or more.

      HOW IS A PREVENTIVE AGENT SELECTED?

      Multiple factors are considered in selecting a preventive agent. Optimally, treatment initiation should be with a drug that has proven evidence-based efficacy. Evidence-based guidelines for migraine headache are available at the American Academy of Neurology Web site (www.aan.com/professionals/) and include a grouping of migraine preventive agents according to efficacy.
      • Silberstein SD
      Practice parameter: evidence-based guidelines for migraine headache (an evidence-based review): report of the Quality Standards Subcommittee of the American Academy of Neurology.
      Table 3 lists commonly used agents. All comorbidities and medications taken for these comorbidities must be cautiously reviewed to prevent adverse outcomes. Preventive agents that can adversely affect comorbid conditions and/or cause unwanted drug interactions should be avoided. One should be vigilant for the presence of “therapeutic opportunities” that could allow the use of a single drug to prevent migraine attacks while also treating a coexisting condition, if present. The combination of painful peripheral neuropathy and migraine is an example of a therapeutic opportunity in which a single drug, such as gabapentin or a tricyclic antidepressant, could be beneficial. Patient preference is of paramount importance. Some prophylactic medications may increase weight, decrease weight, cause sedation, or have other side effects that may or may not be desirable. Women of childbearing age should beusing effective contraception during migraine preventive treatment. This is very important to discuss with patients since unplanned pregnancies may occur while taking migraine preventive treatment. It is generally best to avoid migraine prophylaxis in pregnant women because many commonly used agents are associated with adverse events and/or teratogenicity.
      TABLE 3Commonly Used Migraine Prophylactic Medications
      From Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat,
      • Garza I
      • Swanson JW
      Prophylaxis of migraine.
      with permission.
      Adverse effects
      DrugInitial dose (mg)Typical total daily dose range (mg)CommonSerious
      Amitriptyline1025–150Weight gain, constipation, sedationCardiac dysrhythmias
      Nortriptyline1025–150Weight gain, constipation, sedationCardiac dysrhythmias
      Divalproex sodium250–500750–1500Alopecia, weight gain, nausea, tremorPancreatitis, liver failure, thrombocytopenia
      Propranolol40–6040–240Depression, fatigueBrady arrhythmia
      Atenolol2550–100Depression, fatigueBrady arrhythmia
      Verapamil80–160160–480Edema, constipationHypotension, dysrhythmias
      Gabapentin300900–2400Edema, sedation, fatigue, dizziness
      Topiramate15–2575–200Paresthesias, fatigue, weight lossAcute angle closure glaucoma, hyperthermia, metabolic acidosis, nephrolithiasis

      HOW SHOULD PROPHYLACTIC MEDICATION BE PRESCRIBED?

      Preventive agents are usually used one at a time because scientific evidence to support the efficacy of combination therapy is limited. Additionally, use of 2 or more agents often results in more adverse effects than a single agent. Once a preventive agent has been selected, therapy is initiated at a low dose that is increased slowly to reduce the likelihood of adverse effects. Additionally, the dose is slowly increased until the desired clinical effect is obtained or until adverse effects interfere. The minimum effective dose that does not cause intolerable adverse effects is the desired outcome. Of note, the maximum clinical benefit may not be seen until 2 or 3 months after the medication has been used at the target dose. Therefore, a shorter trial should not be considered a failure. Patients should be asked to keep a headache diary to help document response to prophylactic treatment.
      • Rapoport AM
      • Tepper SJ
      • Sheftell FD
      • Kung E
      • Bigal ME
      Which triptan for which patient?.
      Occasionally, marked and intolerable adverse effects occur and preclude the completion of a proper trial. When this happens, it may be necessary to change the preventive drug.

      IS BOTULINUM TOXIN EFFECTIVE?

      Randomized, double-blind, and placebo-controlled studies using botulinum toxin for migraine prophylaxis have thus far yielded mixed results. Although no indisputable evidence exist that botulinum toxin is effective for migraine prevention,
      • Evers S
      • Mylecharane EJ
      Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory and miscellaneous drugs in migraine prophylaxis.
      many headache specialists strongly believe it is effective in a subset of patients. The definite role of botulinum toxin in migraine management has yet to be determined. However, currently, botulinum toxin is routinely part of a headache specialist's armamentarium for migraine prevention. It is injected pericranially, and if beneficial, treatment may be repeated every 3 months since the effect wanes by that time. Adverse effects, including ptosis, frontal muscle weakness, and local pain at the injection site, are primarily mild and temporary.
      • Ramadan NM
      Prophylactic migraine therapy: mechanisms and evidence.
      Botulinum toxin is a reasonable option when other more conventional preventive agents have failed because of lack of efficacy, intolerable adverse effects, or contraindications due to comorbidities.

      IS THERE A ROLE FOR COMBINED ACUTE AND PREVENTIVE THERAPY?

      The combination of acute symptomatic treatment, prophylaxis, and avoidance of migraine triggers is imperative.
      • D'Amico D
      Treatment strategies in migraine patients.
      The goal of preventive agents is to contain the incidence and vulnerability to individual migraine attacks. Simultaneously, episodic acute treatment is aimed at migraine-related disability during those episodes. Few patients have complete cessation of attacks with prophylaxis alone.
      Of note, attacks occurring perimenstrually can be distinctly hard to treat and may not respond to acute analgesics.
      • Allais G
      • Bussone G
      • De Lorenzo C
      • Mana O
      • Benedetto C
      Advanced strategies of short-term prophylaxis in menstrual migraine: state of the art and prospects.
      Severe menstrual migraine often responds better to acute treatment and a preventive agent.
      • Silberstein SD
      • Saper JR
      • Freitag FG
      Migraine: diagnosis and treatment.
      The preventive agent can be used in a standard daily dose. Some women will benefit from intermittent “miniprophylaxis” during menses. Medications that have been used effectively in this setting include naproxen sodium, 550 mg twice a day, oral sumatriptan, 25 mg 3 times a day,
      • Newman LC
      • Lipton RB
      • Lay CL
      • Solomon S
      A pilot study of oral sumatriptan as intermittent prophylaxis of menstruation-related migraine.
      naratriptan, 1 mg twice a day,
      • Newman L
      • Mannix LK
      • Landy S
      • et al.
      Naratriptan as short-term prophylaxis of menstrually associated migraine: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study.
      or frovatriptan, 2.5 mg once or twice a day.
      • Silberstein SD
      • Elkind AH
      • Schreiber C
      • Keywood C
      A randomized trial of frovatriptan for the intermittent prevention of menstrual migraine.
      Any one of these medications is typically started 2 days before the expected onset of headache and continued through the vulnerable period.

      WHAT ARE THE LIMITATIONS IN MIGRAINE MANAGEMENT?

      Comorbidities, drug interactions, and adverse effects frequently preclude use of acute and/or preventive therapy in some patients. The cost of some pharmaceuticals can be high, and therefore, they are not an option for some patients. Regarding acute treatment, quantity limits imposed on triptans by health care plans can obstruct optimal migraine therapy.
      • Silberstein SD
      • Dodick D
      • Kesslick J
      Removing barriers to appropriate migraine treatment: formulary limitations and triptan package size.
      A particular problem unique to women is that of oral contraception since attack frequency and severity may increase, decrease, or not change at all in the setting of initiation of contraception.
      • Massiou H
      • MacGregor EA
      Evolution and treatment of migraine with oral contraceptives.
      About a third of women in whom migraines worsen will benefit from discontinuation of the contraceptive.
      • Evans RW
      • Lipton RB
      Topics in migraine management: a survey of headache specialists highlights some controversies.
      As outlined previously, overuse of acute analgesics may cause medication-overuse headache.
      • Diener HC
      • Katasarva Z
      Analgesic/abortive overuse and misuse in chronic daily headache.
      The beneficial effect of migraine prophylactics can be abolished in this setting. Fortunately, after successful termination of this pattern of frequent analgesic intake, the efficacy of preventive agents can be seen again.
      • Mathew NT
      • Kurman R
      • Perez F
      Drug induced refractory headache—clinical features and management.
      Finally, even when everything is done properly, for unexplained reasons acute or preventive treatment sometimes fails, leading to trial and error with different drugs. Our hope is that further advances in the understanding of the pathophysiology of migraine and the development of new therapies will improve the science of migraine management.

      WHEN CAN PROPHYLAXIS BE DISCONTINUED?

      There is no clear evidence to answer this question. However, in our practice, if headaches have been under good control, we usually attempt to taper or even stop the medication after 6 to 12 months. Additionally, this approach was recommended in a recently published expert opinion on this topic.
      • Evans RW
      • Loder E
      • Biondi DM
      When can successful migraine prophylaxis be discontinued?.
      Nevertheless, some patients who have previously experienced frequent disabling attacks and have found a successful agent may choose to continue treatment for longer periods.

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