Recommended Drugs for Headache Rarely Prescribed in EDs

Randy Dotinga

June 23, 2022

DENVER – In line with recommendations, emergency departments dramatically reduced their use of opioids as treatments for headache over a recent 11-year period, a new study finds. But the use of diphenhydramine (Benadryl) more than doubled even though guidelines caution against it, while recommended drugs such as triptans and corticosteroids were rarely prescribed.

Seonkyeong Yang

From 2007-2010 to 2015-2018, researchers reported at the annual meeting of the American Headache Society, a database reveals that opioid use in headache cases at EDs fell from 54% to 28%. Diphenhydramine use grew from 17% to 36% (both (P < .001). The percentage of cases in which EDs sought neuroimaging stayed stable at about 36%, a number that the study authors described as too high.

"Future studies are warranted to identify strategies to promote evidence-based treatments for headaches and appropriate outpatient referrals for follow-up and to reduce unnecessary neuroimaging orders in EDs," lead author Seonkyeong Yang, MS, of the University of Florida, Gainesville, said in an interview.

Yang said researchers launched the study to update previous data in light of changes in opioid prescribing and the 2016 release of American Headache Society guidelines for the treatment of acute migraines in the ED setting. The research was published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine.

Headache Treatment in the ED

For the study, researchers analyzed data from the U.S. National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care survey and focused on adults who had a primary discharge diagnosis of headache.

For the 2015-2018 period, per weighted numbers, the survey encompassed 10.2 million headaches mostly among people younger than 50 (71%), female (73%), and White (73%). Migraines made up 33% of the total, with nonspecified headache accounting for almost all of the remainder (63%).

In 68% of cases, two or more medications were administered in the ED. This number rose to 83% among patients with migraine. But most of the time (54%), no medications were prescribed at discharge.

Among recommended medications, antiemetics – the most commonly used class of drugs in these patients – were prescribed 59% of the time in both 2007-2010 and 2015-2018 (P = .88). Usage of acetaminophens and NSAIDs grew from 37% to 52% over that time period.

Despite recommendations, the use of ergot alkaloids/triptans and corticosteroids remained low (less than 6% of the time).

"Several factors may contribute to the underuse of triptans in EDs, including their cardiovascular contraindications, ED physicians' unfamiliarity with injectable triptans, higher costs, and treatment failures with triptans before ED visits," Yang said. "We observed an upward trend in dexamethasone use over time. However, it was still underutilized. [The corticosteroid was only used 3.5% of the time from 2015-2018.] The 2016 AHS guideline strongly recommends dexamethasone use to prevent migraine recurrence after ED discharge. Identifying patients at high risk of headache recurrence for dexamethasone use may further improve patient outcomes of acute headache management in ED settings."

Yang also reported that the use of diphenhydramine grew even though it's not recommended. "Diphenhydramine is more likely to be used to prevent akathisia, a side effect of some antiemetics [that is, dopamine receptor antagonists] in headache-related ED visits," she said. "However, the 2016 AHS guideline recommends against diphenhydramine use due to its limited efficacy in relieving headache pain. In addition, there is also conflicting evidence on diphenhydramine's efficacy in preventing akathisia when coadministered with antiemetics. Diphenhydramine use requires caution due to its sedative effect and abuse potential."

As for medication combinations, Yang said "the most broadly used therapy among headache-related ED visits in 2007-2010 was an opioid with an antiemetic (21.0%), which decreased to 6.6% in 2015-2018. Meanwhile, the combined use of acetaminophen/NSAIDs with antiemetic and diphenhydramine increased substantially from 3.9% to 15.7% and became the most prevalent therapy in 2015-2018. Opioid monotherapy use gradually decreased during the study period [from 8.8% to 1.9%]."

Evidence-Based Treatments Underutilized

Commenting on the findings, New York University Langone neurologist and headache researcher Mia Tova Minen, MD, MPH, noted in an interview that AHS guidelines do not indicate acetaminophen/NSAIDs, diphenhydramine, and corticosteroids for the acute treatment of migraine. "The recommended treatments are sumatriptan subcutaneous, IV metoclopramide, and IV prochlorperazine. Steroids can be helpful in the prevention of migraine recurrence but not for the acute treatment of the migraine itself," she said. "We need to ensure that patients with migraine get the top evidence-based treatments for migraine."

As for diphenhydramine, she said it "is not a treatment for headache disorders. It does not have proven efficacy. It is sometimes given to reduce side effects of more acute treatments of headache, but it can make patients fatigued and keep them in the ED longer."

Overuse of Neuroimaging

Yang also highlighted study data about the frequency of neuroimaging. "Understandably, ED physicians do not want to miss any life-threatening secondary headaches like stroke," she said. "However, other factors also contribute to the overuse of neuroimaging in headache-related ED visits: patient demands, financial incentives, a busy ED practice where clinical evaluation is replaced by tests, and ED physicians' unfamiliarity with ICHD-3 diagnostic criteria for primary headache disorders. There is still much room for improvement in neuroimaging use for headaches in ED settings."

For her part, Minen said scans are often performed reflexively and can be overused. "A CT scan is really only good in the case of acute trauma to rule out a fracture or a bleed or if there are signs of an emergent neurologic emergency like herniation or if a MRI is contraindicated. An MRI of the brain is typically the best test to examine brain tissue, though sometimes vessel imaging is also warranted. In the case of no red flags and a normal neurologic exam, the use of neuroimaging is low yield."

The research has no funding. Yang and two other authors disclosed research funding from Merck. Minen reports no disclosures.

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


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