Opioid Overuse in Migraineurs Linked to More Severe Disability

Erik Greb

February 11, 2021

Among patients with migraine who use prescription medications, the increasing use of prescription opioids is associated with chronic migraine, more severe disability, and anxiety and depression, according to an analysis published in the January issue of Headache. The use of prescription opioids also is associated with treatment-related variables such as poor acute treatment optimization and treatment in a pain clinic. The results indicate the continued need to educate patients and clinicians about the potential risks of opioids for migraineurs, according to the researchers.

In the Migraine in America Symptoms and Treatment (MAST) study, which the researchers analyzed for their investigation, one-third of migraineurs who use acute prescriptions reported using opioids. Among opioid users, 42% took opioids on 4 or more days per month.

Dr Richard Lipton

"These findings are like [those of] a previous report from the American Migraine Prevalence and Prevention study and more recent findings from the Observational Survey of the Epidemiology, Treatment, and Care of Migraine (OVERCOME) study," said Richard Lipton, MD, Edwin S. Lowe professor and vice chair of neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, New York. "High rates of opioid use are problematic because opioid use is associated with worsening of migraine over time."

Opioids remain in widespread use for migraine, even though guidelines recommend against this treatment. Among migraineurs, opioid use is associated with more severe headache-related disability and greater use of health care resources. Opioid use also increases the risk of progressing from episodic migraine to chronic migraine.

A Review of MAST Data

Lipton and colleagues set out to identify the variables associated with the frequency of opioid use in people with migraine. Among the variables that they sought to examine were demographic characteristics, comorbidities, headache characteristics, medication use, and patterns of health care use. Lipton's group hypothesized that migraine-related severity and burden would increase with increasing frequency of opioid use.

To conduct their research, the investigators examined data from the MAST study, a nationwide sample of American adults with migraine. They focused specifically on participants who reported receiving prescription acute medications. Participants eligible for this analysis reported 3 or more headache days in the previous 3 months and at least 1 monthly headache day in the previous month. In all, 15,133 participants met these criteria.

Lipton and colleagues categorized participants into four groups based on their frequency of opioid use. The groups had no opioid use, 3 or fewer monthly days of opioid use, 4 to 9 monthly days of opioid use, and 10 or more days of monthly opioid use. The last category is consistent with the International Classification of Headache Disorders-3 criteria for overuse of opioids in migraine.

At baseline, MAST participants provided information about variables such as gender, age, marital status, smoking status, education, and income. Participants also reported how many times in the previous 6 months they had visited a primary care doctor, a neurologist, a headache specialist, or a pain specialist.

Lipton's group calculated monthly headache days using the number of days during the previous 3 months affected by headache. The Migraine Disability Assessment (MIDAS) questionnaire was used to measure headache-related disability. The four-item Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-4) was used to screen for anxiety and depression, and the Migraine Treatment Optimization Questionnaire (mTOQ-4) evaluated participants' treatment optimization.

Men Predominated Among Opioid Users

The investigators included 4,701 MAST participants in their analysis. The population's mean age was 45 years, and 71.6% of participants were women. Of the entire sample, 67.5% reported no opioid use, and 32.5% reported opioid use. Of the total study population, 18.7% of patients took opioids 3 or fewer days per month, 6.5% took opioids 4 to 9 days per month, and 7.3% took opioids on 10 or more days per month.

Opioid users did not differ from nonusers on race or marital status. Men were overrepresented among all groups of opioid users, however. In addition, opioid use was more prevalent among participants with fewer than 4 years of college education (34.9%) than among participants with 4 or more years of college (30.8%). The proportion of participants with fewer than 4 years of college increased with increasing monthly opioid use.

Furthermore, opioid use increased with decreasing household income. As opioid use increased, rates of employment decreased. Approximately 33% of the entire sample were obese, and the proportion of obese participants increased with increasing days per month of opioid use.

The most frequent setting during the previous 6 months for participants seeking care was primary care (49.7%). The next most frequent setting was neurology units (20.9%), pain clinics (8.3%), and headache clinics (7.7%). The prevalence of opioid use was 37.5% among participants with primary care visits, 37.3% among participants with neurologist visits, 43.0% among participants with headache clinic visits, and 53.5% with pain clinic visits.

About 15% of the population had chronic migraine. The prevalence of chronic migraine increased with increasing frequency of opioid use. About 49% of the sample had allodynia, and the prevalence of allodynia increased with increasing frequency of opioid use. Overall, disability was moderate to severe in 57.3% of participants. Participants who used opioids on 3 or fewer days per month had the lowest prevalence of moderate to severe disability (50.2%), and participants who used opioids on 10 or more days per month had the highest prevalence of moderate to severe disability (83.8%).

Approximately 21% of participants had anxiety or depression. The lowest prevalence of anxiety or depression was among participants who took opioids on 3 or fewer days per month (17.4%), and the highest prevalence was among participants who took opioids on 10 or more days per month (43.2%). About 39% of the population had very poor to poor treatment optimization. Among opioid nonusers, 35.6% had very poor to poor treatment optimization, and 59.4% of participants who used opioids on 10 or more days per month had very poor to poor treatment optimization.

Lipton and colleagues also examined the study population's use of triptans. Overall, 51.5% of participants reported taking triptans. The prevalence of triptan use was highest among participants who did not use opioids (64.1%) and lowest among participants who used opioids on 3 or fewer days per month (20.5%). Triptan use increased as monthly days of opioid use increased.

Pain Clinics and Opioid Prescription

"In the general population, women are more likely to receive opioids than men," said Lipton. "This [finding] could reflect, in part, that women have more pain disorders than men and are more likely to seek medical care for pain than men." In the current study, however, men with migraine were more likely to receive opioid prescriptions than were women with migraine.

One potential explanation for this finding is that men with migraine are less likely to receive a migraine diagnosis, which might attenuate opioid prescribing, than women with migraine. "It may be that opioids are perceived to be serious drugs for serious pain, and that some physicians may be more likely to prescribe opioids to men because the disorder is taken more seriously in men than women," said Lipton.

The observation that opioids were more likely to be prescribed for people treated in pain clinics "is consistent with my understanding of practice patterns," he added. "Generally, neurologists strive to find effective acute treatment alternatives to opioids. The emergence of [drug classes known as] gepants and ditans provides a helpful set of alternatives to tritpans."

Lipton and his colleagues plan further research into the treatment of migraineurs. "In a claims analysis, we showed that when people with migraine fail a triptan, they are most likely to get an opioid as their next drug," he said. "Reasonable [clinicians] might disagree on the next step. The next step, in the absence of contraindications, could be a different oral triptan, a nonoral triptan, or a gepant or ditan. We are planning a randomized trial to probe this question."

Why Are Opioids Still Being Used?

The study's reliance on patients' self-report and its retrospective design are two of its weaknesses, said Alan M. Rapoport, MD, clinical professor of neurology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and editor-in-chief of Neurology Reviews. One strength, however, is that the stratified sampling methodology produced a study population that accurately reflects the demographic characteristics of the U.S. adult population, he added. Another strength is the investigators' examination of opioid use by patient characteristics such as marital status, education, income, obesity, and smoking.

Given the harmful effects of opioids in migraine, it is hard to understand why as much as one-third of study participants using acute care medication for migraine were using opioids, said Rapoport. Using opioids for the acute treatment of migraine attacks often indicates inadequate treatment optimization, which leads to ongoing headache. As a consequence, patients may take more medication, which can increase headache frequency and lead to diagnoses of chronic migraine and medication overuse headache.

Although the study found an association between the increased use of opioids and decreased household income and increased unemployment, smoking, and obesity, "it is not possible to assign causality to any of these associations, even though some would argue that decreased socioeconomic status was somehow related to more headache, disability, obesity, smoking, and unemployment," he added.

"The paper suggests that future research should look at the risk factors for use of opioids and should determine if depression is a risk factor for or a consequence of opioid use," said Rapoport. "Interventional studies designed to improve the acute care of migraine attacks might be able to reduce the use of opioids. I have not used opioids or butalbital-containing medication in my office for many years."

This study was funded and sponsored by Reddy's Laboratories group of companies, Princeton, N.J. Lipton has received grant support from the National Institutes of Health, the National Headache Foundation, and the Migraine Research Fund. He serves as a consultant, serves as an advisory board member, or has received honoraria from Alder, Allergan, American Headache Society, Autonomic Technologies, Biohaven, Reddy's Laboratories, Eli Lilly, eNeura Therapeutics, Merck, Novartis, Pfizer, and Teva, Inc. He receives royalties from Wolff's Headache, 8th Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) and holds stock options in eNeura Therapeutics and Biohaven.

SOURCE: Lipton RB, et al. Headache. https://doi.org/10.1111/head.14018. 2020;61(1):103-16.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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