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Many different medications are used to treat migraines. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has specifically approved only the following types of drugs for treating migraine attacks:
Other types of drugs, including opioids and barbiturates, are sometimes prescribed off-label for migraine treatment. Opioids and barbiturates have not been approved by the FDA for migraine relief, and they can be addictive.
All FDA-approved migraine treatments are approved only for adults. No migraine products have officially been approved for use in children.
Some patients with mild migraines respond well to over-the-counter (OTC) painkillers, particularly if they take the medicine at the very first sign of an attack. OTC pain relievers, (also called analgesics), include:
There are also prescription-only NSAIDs. These include diclofenac (Cataflam), which is taken by mouth, and ketorolac (Toradol), which is given by injection.
NSAID Side Effects. High dosages and long-term use of NSAIDs can increase the risk for heart attack, stroke, kidney problems, and stomach bleeding. Aspirin does not increase the risk for heart problems, but it can cause other NSAID-related side effects.
Triptans (also referred to as serotonin agonists) were the first drugs specifically developed for use against migraine. They are the most important migraine drugs currently available. They help maintain serotonin levels in the brain, and so specifically target one of the major components in the migraine process.
Triptans are recommended as first-line drugs for adult patients with moderate-to-severe migraines when NSAIDs are not effective. Triptans have the following benefits:
Sumatriptan. Sumatriptan (Imitrex) has the longest track record and is the most studied of all triptans. It is available as a fast-dissolving pill, nasal spray, or injection. Injected sumatriptan works the fastest of all the triptans and is the most effective, but it can cause pain at the injection site. The nasal spray form bypasses the stomach and is absorbed more quickly than the oral form. Some patients report relief as soon as 15 minutes after administration. The spray tends to work less well when a person has nasal congestion from cold or allergy. It may also leave a bad taste. Sumatriptan is effective for many patients, but headache recurs in 20 - 40% of people within 24 hours after taking the drug.
In 2008, the FDA approved a drug (Treximet) that combines in one pill both sumatriptan and the anti-inflammatory pain reliever naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn). Some studies have found that the combination of sumatriptan and naproxen works better for migraine relief than either drug alone.
Other Triptans. Newer triptans include almotriptan (Axert), zolmitriptan (Zomig), naratriptan (Amerge), rizatriptan (Maxalt), frovatriptan (Frova), and eletriptan (Relpax). Comparison studies with sumatriptan suggest that some of the newer drugs may have fewer side effects and may be better for providing immediate, sustained, and consistent pain relief. Triptans are also being investigated for prevention under certain circumstances, such as menstrual migraines, but benefits appear limited.
Although triptans, (like all migraine medications), are approved only for adults, researchers are investigating zolmitriptan for treating migraines in adolescents.
Side Effects. Side effects of triptans may include:
Complications of Triptans. The following are potentially serious problems.
The following people should avoid triptans or take them with caution and only with the advisement of a doctor:
Drugs containing ergotamine (commonly called ergots) constrict smooth muscles, including those in blood vessels, and are useful for migraine. They were the first anti-migraine drugs available. Ergotamine is available by prescription in the following preparations:
Ergotamine ' s role since the introduction of triptans is now less certain. Only the rectal forms of ergotamine are superior to rectal triptans. Injected, oral, and nasal-spray forms are all inferior to the triptans. Ergotamine may still be helpful for patients with status migrainous or those with frequent recurring headaches.
Side Effects. Side effects of ergotamine include:
The following are potentially serious problems:
The following patients should avoid ergots:
Ergotamine can interact with other medications, such as antifungal drugs and some antibiotics. All ergotamine products approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) contain a "black box" warning in the prescription label explaining these drug interactions. In 2007, the FDA pulled 15 unapproved older ergotamine products off the market, in part because they lacked this warning label. The five FDA-approved ergotamine products that remain on the market are:
If the pain is very severe and does not respond to other drugs, doctors may try painkillers containing opioids. Opioid drugs include morphine, codeine, meperidine (Demerol), and oxycodone (Oxycontin)]. Butorphanol is an opioid in nasal spray form that may be useful as a rescue treatment when others fail.
Opioids are not approved for migraine treatment and should not be used as first-line therapy. Nevertheless, many opioid products are prescribed to patients with migraine, sometimes with dangerous results. In 2007, following reports of several drug-related deaths, the Food and Drug Administration warned that the cancer pain pill fentanyl (Fentora) should not be used to treat patients with migraine or others conditions for which the drug is not specifically approved.
Side Effects. Side effects for all opioids include drowsiness, impaired judgment, nausea, and constipation. There is a risk for addiction, and these drugs can become ineffective with long-term use for chronic migraines. Doctors should not prescribe opioids to patients at risk for drug abuse, including those with personality or psychiatric disorders.
Metoclopramide (Reglan) is used in combinations with other drugs to treat the nausea and vomiting that occurs with other drugs and with migraine itself. Metoclopramide and other anti-nausea drugs, such as domperidone (Motilium), may help the intestine better absorb migraine medications.
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