Migraine Drugs' Effects Scare Many Away

But When One Treatment Doesn't Work, Another May

From the WebMD Archives

Jan. 16, 2003 -- New medications can effectively treat and even prevent migraines, but it appears that most patients suffer needlessly because they either take them incorrectly or don't take them at all.


A study of people with recurring migraine headaches found that two out of three delayed or avoided taking prescribed drugs due to concerns about treatment side effects. Patients also reported more intense, longer-lasting headaches when they did not take their medications correctly.


Headache experts agree that treating migraines early in an attack often helps reduce the severity of headaches. But despite the availability of new drugs, most of the 28 million Americans who suffer from migraines are not taking the most effective medications.


In the new study, published in the January issue of the journal Headache, nearly1,200 migraine sufferers were questioned about the medications they took.


Two-thirds delayed or avoided taking their current prescription medications because of treatment side effects. Of those taking triptans -- the most commonly prescribed class of drugs for recurring headache pain -- patients listed sleepiness and fatigue, racing heartbeat, nausea, and difficulty thinking as common side effects.


Want more information about migraines? See this list of triptans and more information on migraine treatment.


Sleepiness and fatigue were also common among patients taking non-triptan medications, as were nausea, difficulty thinking, and trouble functioning. Other less frequently mentioned side effects included dizziness, muscle weakness, chest pressure, and warm sensations.


Lead researcher R. Michael Gallagher, DO, tells WebMD that one size does not fit all when it comes to migraine medications. Patients who experience troubling side effects with one treatment may fare better with another.


"There are about six different triptans available now, and each one has a little bit of a different side-effect profile," says Gallagher, director of the headache center at the University of Medicine and Dentistry, New Jersey School of Osteopathic Medicine. "Patients who complain of side effects can be switched to other medications. The challenge is to educate physicians about these new drugs."


Headache specialist Roger Cady, MD, says even the best medications are only effective about half the time, so patients are frequently unwilling to put up with troubling side effects. He adds that compliance is also affected by necessarily complex treatment regimens designed to keep the patient from taking too little or too much medication.


Cady says sticking with treatment is critical because patients who successfully control migraines with medication often find the frequency and severity of future headaches to be diminished.


"The important thing is to educate patients and make them aware that this is not a life sentence," he tells WebMD. "Once the nervous system is back in control of things, patients can typically come off these medications."


Show Sources

SOURCES:Headache, January, 2003 • R. Michael Gallagher, DO, director of the Headache Center, UMDNJ-School of Medicine, Moorestown, New Jersey • Roger Cady, MD, headache specialist and family practice physician, Springfield, Missouri.
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