Migraine Medications

August 12, 2013

If you’re one of the more than 30 million Americans who suffer from migraines, you know that calling them “just another headache” is like calling a hurricane “just another storm.”

Fortunately, says neurologist Eric Bastings, M.D., deputy director of the Division of Neurology at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there are practical measures you can take to prevent painful migraines and FDA-approved medications to either stave off their onset or relieve their pain. There are two basic kinds of medications for migraine: abortive medications (also called acute medications) that treat migraines after they begin, and preventive medications that help keep migraines from developing in the first place.

In January 2013, FDA approved an acute medication that uses a widely-prescribed drug for treating migraines (sumatriptan, name brand Imitrex), but delivers the drug through a new mechanism — a transdermal system in the form of a patch that can be wrapped around a patient’s upper arm or thigh. (Transdermal drug delivery is absorption through the skin.)

“Although consumers are familiar with using a patch for, say, smoking cessation, this is the first patch FDA has approved to treat migraines,” says Bastings.

What Causes a Migraine?

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), about 12 percent of the U.S. population experience migraines. Migraines affect both children and adults, but affect adult women three times more often than men.

Bastings explains that migraines are neurovascular headaches. They are characterized by throbbing and pulsating pain caused by the a temporary widening of blood vessels in the brain, triggered by abnormal activation of nerve pathways involved in the transmission of pain signals.

Characteristics of a migraine frequently include:

  • Pain typically on one side of the head
  • Pain that has a pulsating or throbbing quality
  • Moderate to intense pain that affects daily activities
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light or sound
  • Aura, visual disturbances that signal the beginning, such as dots, flashing lights or blind spots

Bastings also says that a number of studies show that migraines are underdiagnosed by patient and physician, alike. “Many people don’t recognize the symptoms as belonging to migraine,” he says. Or they don’t think of sharing information about the occasional headache with their physician, even if it is severe.

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