Migraine Headache Treatment & Management
- Author: Jasvinder Chawla, MD, MBA; Chief Editor: Helmi L Lutsep, MD more...
Migraine treatment involves acute (abortive) and preventive (prophylactic) therapy. Patients with frequent attacks usually require both. Measures directed toward reducing migraine triggers are also generally advisable.
Acute treatment aims to reverse, or at least stop, the progression of a headache that has started. Preventive treatment, which is given even in the absence of a headache, aims to reduce the frequency and severity of the migraine attack, make acute attacks more responsive to abortive therapy, and perhaps also improve the patient's quality of life. An overview of migraine treatment is shown in the image below.
Migraineurs should be screened for cardiovascular risk factors, which, if present, should be aggressively treated. Migraineurs with aura should also be counseled on the increased risk of stroke with smoking and oral contraceptive use.
A neurologist, neuro-ophthalmologist, and/or neurosurgeon should be consulted as deemed clinically appropriate for the treatment of patients with migraine.
Emergency Department Considerations
Emergency medical services personnel should transport patients in a way that minimizes visual and auditory stimulation. Once in the emergency department (ED), most patients should not receive opiate analgesics until a thorough neurologic examination can be completed by the responsible physician.
While the emergency physician must be able to identify patients with serious headache etiology, note that more than 90% of patients who present to the ED because of headache have migraine, tension, or mixed-type benign headache. Therefore, providing symptomatic relief should be a priority. Rest in a darkened, quiet room is helpful. Some patients find cool compresses to painful areas helpful.
Migraine-specific medications and analgesia are key elements of ED care. Although narcotics remain the most frequently administered medication for patients with migraine and for ED patients with headache, evidence suggests that they are potentially ineffective, and their use may lead to more prolonged ED stays.[80, 81]
Friedman et al found that nearly three quarters of ED patients with migraine or other primary headache reported headache recurrence within 48 hours of ED discharge; in this study, naproxen 500 mg and oral sumatriptan 100 mg provided comparable relief of post-ED recurrent migraine.
Hospital admission for migraine may be indicated for the following:
Treatment of severe nausea, vomiting, and subsequent dehydration
Treatment of severe, refractory migraine pain (ie, status migrainosus)
Detoxification from overuse of combination analgesics, ergots, or opioids
Reduction of Migraine Triggers
Patients should avoid factors that precipitate a migraine attack (eg, lack of sleep, fatigue, stress, certain foods, use of vasodilators). Encourage patients to use a daily diary to document the headaches. This is an effective and inexpensive tool to follow the course of the disease.
Patients may need to discontinue any medications that exacerbate their headaches. If an oral contraceptive is suspected to be a trigger, the patient may be advised to modify, change, or discontinue its use for a trial period. Similarly, when hormone replacement therapy is a suspected trigger, patients should reduce dosages, if possible. If headaches persist, consider discontinuing hormone therapy.
Biofeedback, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and relaxation therapy are frequently effective against migraine headaches and may be used adjunctively with pharmacologic treatments. Occipital nerve stimulators may be helpful in patients whose headaches are refractory to other forms of treatment.
In December 2013, the FDA approved the Cerena Transcranial Magnetic Stimulator (Cerena TMS), the first device to relieve pain caused by migraine headache with aura for use in patients aged 18 years and older. Users hold the device with both hands to the back of the head and press a button to release a pulse of magnetic energy that stimulates the occipital cortex. The recommended daily usage of the device is not to exceed one treatment in 24 hours.[84, 85]
Approval for the Cerena TMS was based on a randomized study of 201 patients with moderate to strong migraine headaches, in which 39% of the patients using the device were pain-free 2 hours following its use, relative to 22% of control patients (therapeutic gain: 17%).[86, 87] At 24 hours, nearly 34% of patients treated with the device were pain-free, compared with 10% of the control group.
Contraindications and precautions regarding the use of the Cerena TMS include the following[84, 85] :
Do not use for patients with any metal in the head, neck, or upper body that is attracted by a magnet
Do not use for patients with an active implanted medical device (eg, pacemaker, deep brain stimulator)
Do not use for patients with suspected/diagnosed epilepsy or who have a personal or family history of seizures
Trials of nonpharmacologic management have produced average reduction in migraines of 40-50%, closely paralleling results obtained in trials of preventive drugs; however, the evidence base for nonpharmacologic and pharmacologic prevention remains limited. A 16-month randomized, placebo-controlled trial by Holryod et al found that the combination of beta-blocker therapy and behavioral management improved outcomes in patients with frequent migraines, while neither intervention was effective by itself.
Numerous abortive medications are used for migraine. The choice for an individual patient depends on the severity of the attacks, associated symptoms such as nausea and vomiting, comorbid problems, and the patient's treatment response. A stratified approach based on the patient's therapeutic needs has been advanced (see Table 1, below), as has a stepped-care approach.
Table 1. Abortive Medication Stratification by Headache Severity (Open Table in a new window)
|Ergotamine||Sumatriptan (SC,NS)||Dopamine antagonists|
|DHE=Dihydroergotamine; NSAIDs=nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs|
Simple analgesics alone or in combination with other compounds have provided relief for mild to moderately severe headaches and sometimes even for severe headaches. Acute treatment is most effective when given within 15 minutes of pain onset and when pain is mild.
Analgesics used in migraine include acetaminophen, NSAIDs, and narcotic analgesics (eg, oxycodone, morphine sulfate). Propoxyphene (Darvon) was formerly used; however, propoxyphene products were withdrawn from the United States market in 2010, because this agent can cause prolonged PR interval, widened QRS complex, and prolonged QT interval at therapeutic doses. For more information, see MedWatch safety information, from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
For more severe pain, 5-hydroxytryptamine–1 (5-HT1) agonists (triptans) and/or opioid analgesics are used, either alone or in combination with dopamine antagonists (eg, prochlorperazine [Compazine]). The use of abortive medications must be limited to 2-3 days a week to prevent development of a rebound headache phenomenon.
Intravenous metoclopramide is recognized as an effective therapy for acute migraine, but the optimal dosing has not been established. A study by Friedman et al determined that 20 or 40 mg of metoclopramide is no better in the treatment of acute migraine than 10 mg of the drug.
A systematic review by Taggart et al found that ketorolac is an effective alternative agent for the relief of acute migraine headache in the ED. Ketorolac provides pain relief similar to that with meperidine (with less potential for addiction) and is more effective than sumatriptan; however, it may not be as effective as metoclopramide/phenothiazine agents. Side-effect profiles were similar with ketorolac and these other agents.
Triptans and ergot alkaloids
The 2 categories of migraine-specific oral medications are triptans and ergot alkaloids. The specific ergot alkaloids include ergotamine and dihydroergotamine (DHE). The specific triptans include the following :
Although the triptans share a common mechanism of action, they differ in the available routes of administration, onset of action, and duration of action. Routes of administration include oral, intranasal, subcutaneous, and intramuscular. Transdermal patches have proved effective for the delivery of sumatriptan, and one such product has received FDA approval. The sumatriptan iontophoretic transdermal system (Zecuity, NuPathe Inc) was approved by the FDA in January 2013 for the acute treatment of migraine with or without aura in adults. The single-use patch also treats migraine-related nausea. In phase 3 trials involving 800 patients, the patches safely and effectively relieved migraine pain, migraine-related nausea, sonophobia, and photophobia within 2 hours of activation.
The FDA approved a low-dose intranasal sumatriptan powder for migraine in January 2016. The product consists of 22 mg of sumatriptan powder and is the first breath-powered intranasal medication delivery system to treat migraines. Approval was based on data from phase 2 and phase 3 trials, reference data on the use of sumatriptan, and safety data from more than 300 patients.[96, 97]
All the triptans are most effective when taken early during a migraine and all may be repeated in 2 hours as needed, with a maximum of 2 doses daily. While different formulations of a specific triptan may be used in the same 24-hour period, only 1 triptan may be used during this time frame.
The longer-acting triptans (eg, frovatriptan, naratriptan) may be used continuously for several days (mini-prophylaxis) to treat menstrual migraine. Triptans should not be used more than 3 days weekly, to avoid transformed migraine and medication overuse headache.
The effectiveness and tolerability of triptans varies among patients. Lack of response or side effects experienced with one triptan does not predict the response to another.
The safety of triptans is well established, and the risk of de novo coronary vasospasm from triptan use is exceedingly rare. However, triptans should not be taken by patients with known or suspected coronary artery disease, as they may increase risk of myocardial ischemia, infarction, or other cardiac or cerebrovascular events.
The dose of rizatriptan must be reduced to 5 mg in patients taking propranolol. Sumatriptan, zolmitriptan, and rizatriptan are primarily metabolized by monoamine oxidase (MAO) and should be avoided in patients taking MAO-A inhibitors.
The first combination product of a triptan and an NSAID, Treximet, was approved by the FDA in 2008. Treximet contains sumatriptan and naproxen sodium. In 2 randomized, double-blind, multicenter, parallel-group trials, a significantly greater percentage of patients remained pain free for 24 hours postdose after a single dose of Treximet (25% and 23%) than after use of placebo (8% and 7%) or either sumatriptan (16% and 14%) or naproxen sodium (10%) alone.
Patients with severe headaches need subcutaneous, intravenous, or oral formulations of an ergot alkaloid or triptan. Do not administer vasoconstrictors, such as ergots or triptans, to patients with known complicated migraine; treat their acute attacks with one of the other available agents, such as NSAIDs or prochlorperazine.
Treatment of nausea and vomiting
Antiemetics (eg, chlorperazine, promethazine) are used to treat the emesis associated with acute migraine attacks. Patients with severe nausea and vomiting at the onset of an attack may respond best to intravenous prochlorperazine. These patients may be dehydrated, and adequate hydration is necessary.
Antiemetics are commonly combined with diphenhydramine to minimize the risk of akathisia. This combination of drugs has been found to be superior to subcutaneous sumatriptan when given intravenously in emergency patients.
The following may be considered indications for prophylactic migraine therapy:
Frequency of migraine attacks is greater than 2 per month
Duration of individual attacks is longer than 24 hours
The headaches cause major disruptions in the patient’s lifestyle, with significant disability that lasts 3 or more days
Abortive therapy fails or is overused
Symptomatic medications are contraindicated or ineffective
Use of abortive medications more than twice a week
Migraine variants such as hemiplegic migraine or rare headache attacks producing profound disruption or risk of permanent neurologic injury 
The goals of preventive therapy are as follows:
Reduce attack frequency, severity, and/or duration
Improve responsiveness to acute attacks
Currently, the major prophylactic medications for migraine work via one of the following mechanisms:
5-HT2 antagonism - Methysergide
Regulation of voltage-gated ion channels - Calcium channel blockers
Modulation of central neurotransmitters - Beta blockers, tricyclic antidepressants
Enhancing gamma-aminobutyric acid-ergic (GABAergic) inhibition - Valproic acid, gabapentin
Another notable mechanism is alteration of neuronal oxidative metabolism by riboflavin and reduction of neuronal hyperexcitability by magnesium replacement.
As with abortive medications, the selection of a preventive medication must take into consideration comorbid conditions and the side-effect profile (see Tables 2 and 3, below). Most preventive medications have modest efficacies and have therapeutic gains of less than 50% when compared with placebo. The latency between initiation of therapy and onset of positive treatment response can be quite prolonged. Furthermore, the scientific basis for using most of these medications is wanting.
Table 2. Preventive Drugs for Migraine (Open Table in a new window)
|First line||High efficacy||Beta blockers
|MAOIs = monoamine oxidase inhibitors|
Table 3. Preventive Medication for Comorbid Conditions (Open Table in a new window)
|Depression||Tricyclic antidepressants, SSRIs|
|Underweight||Tricyclic antidepressants (nortriptyline, protriptyline)|
|Epilepsy||Valproic acid, topiramate|
|SSRIs = selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors|
Propranolol, timolol, methysergide, valproic acid, and topiramate (Topamax) have been approved by the FDA for migraine prophylaxis. However, a 2009 report suggested that long-term topiramate use in pediatric patients can cause metabolic acidosis and hypokalemia; the risk was deemed mild but statistically significant.
Misra et al reported that in migraineurs with allodynia, prophylactic therapy with divalproex and amitriptyline were equally effective in relieving allodynia. In study patients, the presence of allodynia was related to the duration, severity, and frequency of migraine and to female gender.
The NSAID naproxen sodium has also been used for prophylaxis. In controlled clinical trials, naproxen sodium demonstrated better efficacy than placebo and similar efficacy to propranolol. However, this agent should be reserved for short-term use, such as for menstrual migraines. Tolfenamic acid has also been tried for migraine prophylaxis, but its clinical efficacy is not as good as that of beta blockers, valproate, or methysergide.
Of note, an open pilot study reported that quetiapine is effective for migraine prophylaxis in patients with migraine refractory to treatment with standard therapies (eg, atenolol, nortriptyline, flunarizine). The authors stated that controlled studies would be necessary to confirm their observations.
Classes of prophylactic drugs
The 3 principal classes of medications that are effective for migraine prevention are as follows:
For any of these prophylactic agents, prophylaxis should not be considered a failure until it has been given at the maximum tolerable dose for at least 30 days.
Antiepileptics are generally well tolerated. The main adverse effects of topiramate are weight loss and dysesthesia. Valproic acid (Depakote) is useful as a first-line agent. It is a good mood stabilizer and can benefit patients with concomitant mood swings. However, it can cause weight gain, hair loss, and polycystic ovary disease; therefore, it may not be ideal for young female patients who have a tendency to gain weight.
Valproic acid also carries substantial risks in pregnancy; it may be best suited for women who have had tubal ligation and who cannot tolerate calcium channel blockers because of dizziness. Data for other antiepileptics (eg, gabapentin, lamotrigine, oxcarbazepine) are limited in migraine.
Topiramate is approved in the U.S. for migraine prophylaxis in adults and adolescents aged 12 years or older. The safety and effectiveness of topiramate in preventing migraine headaches in adolescents were established in a clinical trial of 103 participants. Frequency of migraine decreased by approximately 72% in treated patients, compared with 44% in participants receiving placebo.[106, 107]
Tricyclic antidepressants are good second-line alternatives because of their adverse-effect profile and efficacy. Head-to-head comparisons of agents in this class have not been conducted, but amitriptyline and nortriptyline are commonly used.
Although selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are widely used, data regarding their efficacy in migraine prevention are lacking; consequently, SSRIs are not recommended for migraine prevention. However, limited data do support the use of serotonin/norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) such as duloxetine (Cymbalta) and venlafaxine (Effexor) for migraine prevention.
Antihypertensives such as beta blockers should be tailored if the patient is young and anxious. Moreover, they may not be the ideal choice for elderly patients or patients with depression, thyroid problems, or diabetes. Calcium channel blockers are another possible choice of treatment. Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors (eg, lisinopril) and angiotensin-receptor blockers (eg, candesartan) have also been shown to be effective for migraine prevention.
Botulinum toxin A (onabotulinumtoxinA; BOTOX®) may be beneficial in patients with intractable, chronic migraine that has failed to respond to at least 3 conventional preventive medications. The injections are administered to the scalp and temple. They may reduce the frequency and severity of migraine attacks after 2-3 months of injections.
The injections are expensive and must be administered every 2-3 months to maintain their effectiveness. The most appropriate duration of prophylactic therapy has not been determined. In most patients who are receiving prophylaxis, therapy must be continued for at least 3-6 months.
Multiple trials of onabotulinumtoxinA for migraine prevention have been conducted, with mixed results. A review by Schulte-Mattler and Martinez-Castrillo found no evidence of a beneficial effect from botulinum toxin. These authors do not recommend the widespread use of botulinum toxin therapy in headaches.
More recently, however, 2 multicenter, placebo-controlled trials included in the Phase 3 Research Evaluating Migraine Prophylaxis Therapy (PREEMPT) clinical program found onabotulinumtoxinA to be effective for headache prophylaxis in adults with chronic migraine. Nearly 1400 patients were included in the results. Secondary benefits included significantly reduced headache-related disability and improved functioning, vitality, and overall health-related quality of life.
In 2016, the American Academy of Neurology updated its 2008 guidelines on using botulinum toxin for brain disorders. Botulinum toxin A is now recommended for the management of chronic migraine, defined as attacks lasting 4 or more hours on at least 15 days each month for 3 months. Botulinum toxin A is not recommended for less frequent, "episodic" migraine.
In March 2014, the FDA approved the first device for the preventive treatment of migraine headaches for adults, a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) device that is worn for 20 minutes a day. The device fits across the forehead and over the ears and stimulates the trigeminal nerve with a self-adhesive electrode in the center of the forehead. Approval was based on a study of 67 migraine patients in which the device reduced the number of migraine days per month and medication use, and on a patient satisfaction study of 2313 device users, in which more than 53% of patients were satisfied with the device.
Status Migrainosus Treatment
Approximately 40% of all migraine attacks do not respond to a given triptan or any other substance. If all else fails, an intractable migraine attack (status migrainosus), that is, an attack lasting longer than 72 hours, should be addressed in an urgent care or emergency department. In rare cases, patients may need to be hospitalized for a short period and may need to be treated with intravenous valproate or dihydroergotamine (intravenously/subcutaneously/intramuscularly) for a few days.
Treatment of Menstrual Migraine
Abortive therapy for menstrual migraine is the same as for nonmenstrual migraine. Patients with frequent and severe attacks may benefit from short-term, perimenstrual use of preventive agents (eg, frovatriptan ). Patients with menstrual and nonmenstrual migraine who are receiving continuous preventive therapy and experiencing breakthrough menstrual migraine headaches may benefit from perimenstrual elevation of the dose of the preventive medication.
Patients who do not respond to standard preventive measures may benefit from hormonal therapy. Perimenstrual estrogen supplementation with estradiol (0.5 mg orally twice a day, or a 1-mg transdermal patch) may be beneficial. A study by De Leo et al of oral contraceptive use in women with menstrual migraine without aura found that a regimen of 24 ethinyl estradiol/drospirenone pills and 4 inert pills was more effective than a regimen of 21 active pills and 7 inert pills.
Complementary and Alternative Treatments
Interest in the use of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) by headache patients is widespread. A 2002 survey showed that more than 85% of headache patients use CAM therapies and 60% felt they provided some relief. Overall, more than 70% of patients who use CAM do not tell their doctors about it.
Some CAM techniques have good scientific evidence of benefit and have been proven by studies to be effective in preventing migraine. Biofeedback and behavioral therapy should be part of the standard of care for a difficult migraine patient.
Good studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of the herb butterbur (Petasites hybridus) in preventing migraines. A guideline from the American Academy of Neurology and the American Headache Society (AAN/AHS) recommends offering butterbur to patients with migraine to reduce the frequency and severity of migraine attacks (level A recommendation). Patients on butterbur require monitoring of liver enzymes.
The AAN/AHS found moderate evidence of effectiveness for riboflavin (vitamin B2), magnesium, and feverfew. A 3-month, randomized, controlled trial of high-dose riboflavin (400 mg) found that riboflavin was superior to placebo in reducing attack frequency and headache days.
A randomized, controlled trial of coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) documented that CoQ10 is effective and well tolerated for migraine prophylaxis. Results of a trial in children and adolescents suggested that prophylaxis with CoQ10 may lead to earlier improvement in headache severity than does placebo-based prophylaxis, but the trial found no long-term difference in headache outcomes between the CoQ10 and placebo groups.
Melatonin has also been used for migraine prevention. Alstadhaug et al conducted a randomized, controlled, 8-week trial of prolonged-release melatonin (2 mg 1 hour before bedtime) in adult patients experiencing 2-7 migraine attacks per month. Although the investigators found that in the melatonin group the average attack frequency fell from 4.2 to 2.8 per month, this result was not significantly superior statistically to the reduction seen with placebo.
A variety of other CAM techniques are not bolstered by solid scientific data, but they may be perceived to be of benefit to patients. Techniques that some patients use for headache relief include the following:
Body work - Eg, chiropractic, massage, and craniosacral therapy  )
Nutritional/herbal supplements - Eg, vitamins and herbs
Acupressure and acupuncture 
Biofeedback [127, 128]
Overall, scientific evidence on the efficacy of these modalities is lacking, partly due to the poor design and/or poor quality of the studies performed to date.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction and home meditation have been studied as a method to reduce the pain and improve health-related quality of life in patients with chronic pain syndromes. While this method proved effective for chronic arthritis patients, it was not deemed effective in patients with chronic headache/migraine or fibromyalgia.
The advantages of CAM therapies are that many of these remedies have no adverse effects, they advocate a self-help technique that is attractive to patients, and they offer a holistic approach. The practitioners often spend significant time with their patients, and that in itself makes the patient feel as if he or she has been given careful attention.
The disadvantages of CAM therapies include the lack of standardization of either the practice or the dispensing of the therapies and techniques. In addition, for many of these modalities, no standard format exists to ensure that practitioners are adequately trained in the techniques they use.
Surgical therapy for migraine is highly controversial. In a study of 60 patients, Dirnberger and Becker reported that corrugator muscle resection produced total relief of migraine in 28.3% of patients, essential improvement in 40%, and minimal or no change in 31.7%. The more severe their migraine, however, the less likely patients were to experience improvement. In addition, 11 patients who had a very favorable short-term response experienced a gradual return of their headaches to preoperative intensity within about 4 weeks postoperatively.
The significance of diet as a migraine trigger is controversial. Nevertheless, individual patients often can identify these triggers. Common dietary triggers include the following:
Alcohol - Particularly wine and beer
Caffeine overuse or caffeine withdrawal
Aspartame - eg, NutraSweet and Equal
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) - May be found in Asian food, canned soup, frozen or processed foods, and the seasoning product Accent
Fruits - Citrus fruits, bananas, avocados, and dried fruit
Nuts - Peanuts, soy nuts, and soy sauce
Tyramine, a biogenic amine that accumulates in food as it ages, may provoke migraine. Sources include the following:
Dairy - Aged cheese
Meat - Bacon, sausage, luncheon meat, deli meat, pepperoni, and smoked or cured meat
Heavily yeasted breads - Eg, sourdough
Vinegars - Especially wine vinegar
Some types of beans
Nutraceuticals shown to be effective in randomized clinical trials include the aforementioned vitamin B2, CoQ-10, magnesium, and butterbur (Petadolex).
One study of exercise for migraine prevention (40 minutes 3 times weekly for 3 months) reported a mean attack reduction of 0.93 during the final month of treatment, which was not significantly different from the reductions achieved in the control groups using topiramate or a relaxation program. However, most studies of aerobic exercise in migraine patients have not found a significant reduction of headache attacks or headache duration, although regular exercise has been shown to reduce pain intensity in many patients.
Novel Treatments and Future Drugs
Tonabersat is a novel benzopyran compound that markedly reduces cortical spreading depression (CSD) and CSD-associated events by inhibiting gap-junction communication between neurons and satellite glial cells in the trigeminal ganglion. In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover trial, preventive therapy with tonabersat reduced the frequency of aura attacks with or without headache but had no efficacy on non-aura attacks.
The pipeline of future compounds for the treatment of acute migraine headaches also includes the following medications:
Transient receptor potential vanilloid type 1 antagonists
Prostaglandin E receptor 4 receptor antagonists
Serotonin 5HT1(F) receptor agonists
Nitric oxide synthase inhibitors
The immediate future of preventive treatment for migraine headaches will likely involve glutamate N-methyl-D-aspartic acid (NMDA) receptor antagonists and gap-junction blockers.
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|Ergotamine||Sumatriptan (SC,NS)||Dopamine antagonists|
|DHE=Dihydroergotamine; NSAIDs=nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs|
|First line||High efficacy||Beta blockers
|MAOIs = monoamine oxidase inhibitors|
|Depression||Tricyclic antidepressants, SSRIs|
|Underweight||Tricyclic antidepressants (nortriptyline, protriptyline)|
|Epilepsy||Valproic acid, topiramate|
|SSRIs = selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors|