Experts Advise Against It, But Opioids Often Used to Treat Migraine

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Too many Americans are still using opioids to treat their migraine headaches, according to migraine experts who say opioids are generally not recommended for migraines and could even cause more headaches.

In a recent online survey of 20,000 migraine patients, 19 percent said they were currently using opioids to treat migraine -- up from the 16 percent reported in 2009 in the American Migraine Prevalence and Prevention Study.

“These data show that, despite the known potential risks of using opioids for migraine, far too many continue to do so,” said Sait Ashina, MD, a neurologist and Director of the Comprehensive Headache Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “It’s concerning that people may be using these drugs in place of conventional therapies proven to be safer and more effective for migraine.”

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Clinical guidelines from the American Headache Society (AHS) encourage the use of triptans and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin and ibuprofen as first-line treatment for migraine.

Because opioids can increase the frequency of migraines or lead to medication overuse headaches, opioids are typically reserved for patients when triptans and NSAIDs don’t work or are contraindicated. 

The survey found that nearly a quarter of the patients who reported four or more migraines per month were using opioids to treat pain, and more than half of them reported taking opioids at least once to treat a migraine headache. 

The survey is part of the ObserVational Survey of the Epidemiology, tReatment and Care Of MigrainE (OVERCOME) study, which is funded by Eli Lilly. The company makes Emgality, an injectable non-opioid drug that reduces the frequency of migraine.

“OVERCOME showed that, overall, opioids are being used in place of medicines that are approved and indicated to treat migraine – particularly among those who experience migraine headaches more frequently,” said Ashina, who is a paid consultant for Eli Lilly.

A separate analysis of over 21,000 migraine sufferers in the OVERCOME study found that patients who used opioids were more likely to experience depression or anxiety when compared to those who never used opioids.

Opioids Overprescribed to Children

Other studies presented last month at the American Headache Society’s annual meeting indicate that opioids are overprescribed to children with migraine.

In an analysis of nearly 14,500 emergency room visits by adolescents and young adults with migraine, opioids were ordered 23% of the time within 12 hours of admission. In more than half of those cases (58%), an opioid was ordered as first-line therapy. Rates of opioid prescribing for migraine did significantly decrease during the study period, from 2010 to 2016.

Another study presented at the AHS annual meeting found that nearly one of every six children who receives medication for migraine or headache during their first medical visit was prescribed an opioid. The rates were even higher among older teens, with one of every four prescribed an opioid during the 2009 to 2014 study period.

“Opioids are generally not recommended for the treatment of migraine due to limited evidence for efficacy, the risk of dependence and the evidence that opioid treatment is a risk factor for headache exacerbation. The very medication that relieves pain short term may lead to the onset of chronic migraine,” said Richard Lipton, MD, a former president of the American Headache Society.

Migraine affects a billion people worldwide and about 36 million adults in the United States, according to the American Migraine Foundation. In addition to headache pain and nausea, migraine can cause vomiting, blurriness or visual disturbances, as well as sensitivity to light and sound. Women are three times more likely to suffer from migraine than men.