Doctors Prescribing Opioids for Migraine Despite Risks

By Pat Anson, Editor

Physicians are still prescribing opioid painkillers or barbiturates to treat migraine, even though frequent use of the drugs can make headaches worse and raise the risk of addiction.

Over half the patients who visited a headache center in New York City said they had been prescribed opioids and/or barbiturates, according to a new study presented at the annual scientific meeting of the American Headache Society. About 20 percent of the 218 patients surveyed, most of whom had a migraine diagnosis, said they were still taking the drugs.

"Headache specialists are often in a difficult position when patients request opioids or increasing quantities of barbiturates," said lead author Mia Minen, MD, Director of Headache Services at NYU's Langone Medical Center. "Although many patients find these effective, they are known to contribute to headaches related to medication overuse."

Minen and her research team identified which physicians were prescribing the drugs and found the most frequent first prescribers of opioids were emergency room physicians, while general neurologists were the most frequent first prescribers of barbiturates. Primary care physicians were also identified as first prescribers.

"Taken as a whole, these data provide a useful snapshot of the wide variety of physician specialties that might benefit from additional education on the appropriate use of opioids and barbiturate-containing medications in patients with headaches," said Minen.

Opioids and barbiturates should only be used as a last resort to treat migraine, according to the American Board of Internal Medicine's "Choosing Wisely" campaign. The campaign recommends the first medications for migraine should be either over-the-counter pain relievers or a class of prescription drugs called triptans that are made specifically for migraine.

"This study underscores the fact that prescribers may not be aware of best practices in migraine care,” said Beth Darnall, PhD, a pain psychologist, clinical associate professor at Stanford University and author of Less Pain, Fewer Pills.

“Problems arise when ‘crisis solutions’ are applied as the de facto treatment for daily management of pain. Patients may believe that opioids are beneficial but they lead to worse migraine and headache pain, and are not considered appropriate first-line treatment for these conditions. If possible, patients should seek a specialized evaluation with a board certified specialist to ensure they receive medications that will help them in the long run.”

Darnall called opioids and benzodiazepines “a dangerous combination of medications,” and said they should be avoided or combined only under close medical supervision.

The problem extends far beyond the borders of the United States. According to the recently released Global Burden of Disease Study, the number of headaches caused by medication overuse has risen by 120% since 1990. Medication overuse headache is the 18th leading cause of disability worldwide.

New “Landmark” Class of Migraine Drugs Being Developed

Meanwhile, clinicians and researchers at the American Headache Society’s annual meeting are reportedly excited about a new class of drugs called Calcitonin Gene-Related Peptide (CGRP) monoclonal antibodies, which are showing promise in treating high-frequency episodic migraine and chronic migraine. Research studies on CGRP are being presented at the meeting, which draws more than 1,000 migraine specialists from around the world.

"This development is a transformative moment in migraine treatment," said Peter Goadsby, MD, who is chief of the UC San Francisco Headache Center and one of the world's leading headache treatment experts. "Up till now, migraine patients have had limited choices for preventive treatment. Now four pharmaceutical companies are showing positive results in human trials targeting CGRP mechanisms."

The new drugs appear to reduce elevated levels of the peptide known as calcitonin gene-related peptide, which is a key driver of migraine pain. Versions of anti-CGRP therapies are being tested by Alder Pharmaceuticals, Amgen, Eli Lilly and Teva Pharmaceuticals.

Teva reported that in a Phase II clinical study its CGRP therapy achieved a significant reduction in the number of headache hours after one week, with more than half of patients experiencing a 50% or greater reduction in headache frequency.

Amgen’s research showed showed that its anti-CGRP product also reduced the number of migraine days by 50% in about half the treated patients after 12 weeks.

"The potential of these new compounds is enormous and gives us real hope that effective specific treatments for migraine may be on the near horizon," said Goadsby. "The development of CGRP antibodies offers the simple, yet elegant and long awaited option for migraine patients to finally be treated with migraine preventives; it's a truly landmark development."

There has not been a new class of anti-migraine drugs since the development of triptans in the early 1990s.

Migraine is thought to affect a billion people and about 36 million adults in the United States, according to the American Migraine Foundation. It affects three times as many women as men. In addition to headache pain and nausea, migraine can also cause vomiting, blurriness or visual disturbances, and sensitivity to light and sound. About half of people living with migraine are undiagnosed.

The month of June is Migraine Awareness Month.