Migraine is a neurological condition characterized by severe headaches – usually intense pulsing or throbbing on one side of the head. It is often accompanied by extreme sensitivity to light and sound, nausea, and vomiting. Migraine is three times more common in women than in men.
People with migraine tend to have recurring attacks triggered by a lack of food or sleep, exposure to light, or hormonal irregularities (only in women). Anxiety, stress, or relaxation after stress can also be triggers.
Researchers believe that chronic migraine is the result of fundamental neurological abnormalities caused by genetic mutations at work in the brain. Investigations of the more rare, familial subtypes of migraine are yielding information about specific genes and what they do, or don’t do, to cause the pain of migraine headache. Understanding the cascade of biological events that happen in the brain to cause a migraine, and the mechanisms that underlie these events, will give researchers opportunities to develop and test drugs that could prevent or interrupt a migraine attack.
The Stages of Migraine Headaches
Several drugs have been specifically designed to treat migraines. In addition, some drugs commonly used to treat other conditions also may help relieve or prevent chronic migraines:
Update: A new class of migraine drugs, calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) antibodies, are nearing FDA approval. Read more on CGRP migraine treatment.
Pain relievers. These medications, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others) or acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) may help relieve mild migraines. Drugs marketed specifically for migraines, such as the combination of acetaminophen, aspirin and caffeine (Excedrin Migraine), also may ease moderate migraine pain but aren’t effective alone for severe migraines.
Triptans. For many people with migraine attacks, triptans are the drug of choice. They are effective in relieving the pain, nausea, and sensitivity to light and sound that are associated with migraines. Medications include sumatriptan (Imitrex), rizatriptan (Maxalt), almotriptan (Axert), naratriptan (Amerge), zolmitriptan (Zomig), frovatriptan (Frova) and eletriptan (Relpax). A single-tablet combination of sumatriptan and naproxen sodium (Treximet) has proved more effective in relieving migraine symptoms than either medication on its own.
Cardiovascular drugs. Beta blockers — commonly used to treat high blood pressure and coronary artery disease — can reduce the frequency and severity of migraines. The beta blocker propranolol (Inderal La, Innopran XL, others) has proved effective for preventing migraines. Calcium channel blockers, another class of cardiovascular drugs, especially verapamil (Calan, Verelan, others), also may be helpful in preventing migraines and relieving symptoms from aura. In addition, the antihypertensive medication lisinopril (Zestril) has been found useful in reducing the length and severity of migraines. Researchers don’t understand exactly why these cardiovascular drugs prevent migraine attacks. Side effects can include dizziness, drowsiness or lightheadedness.
Antidepressants. Certain antidepressants are good at helping to prevent some types of headaches, including migraines. Tricyclic antidepressants, such as amitriptyline, nortriptyline (Pamelor) and protriptyline (Vivactil) are often prescribed for migraine prevention. Tricyclic antidepressants may reduce migraine headaches by affecting the level of serotonin and other brain chemicals, though amitriptyline is the only one proved to be effective for migraine headaches. You don’t have to have depression to benefit from these drugs. Other classes of antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) haven’t been proved as effective for migraine headache prevention. However, preliminary research suggests that one SNRI, venlafaxine (Effexor, Venlafaxine HCL), may be helpful in preventing migraines.
Botulinum toxin type A (Botox). The FDA has approved botulinum toxin type A for treatment of chronic migraine headaches in adults. During this procedure, injections are made in muscles of the forehead and neck. When this is effective, the treatment typically needs to be repeated every 12 weeks.