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 fewer 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.
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 waking 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.
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 medical and psychological comorbidities, GI system, medication sensitivities, weight, sleep, family history of reaction to medications, finances, willingness to take daily meds, and many other factors. 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.
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. 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 (ARBs) and the angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors (ACEs) 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 ARBs, the calcium channel antagonists have been utilized for migraine prevention. Verapamil ER (extended release) is the most commonly used form, with doses ranging from 120 mg daily up to 360 mg 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 2 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. It is 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 30 mg to 60 mg daily.
Cymbalta has several pain indications, but is probably more effective for moods than for headache.