The Latest Migraine Therapies -- Some You Might Not Know About

Matthew F. Watto, MD; Paul N. Williams, MD


October 21, 2022

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Matthew F. Watto, MD Welcome back to The Curbsiders. I'm Dr Matthew Watto, here with my very good friend, Dr Paul Williams. It's time to talk about headaches. We did a great recent podcast on migraines, Headache Update: Making Migraines Less Painful with Dr. Kevin Weber. One of the quotes from that episode that stayed with me was when he said, "I tell my patients to think about migraine as an irritable old miser set in their ways, and your brain is set in its ways. It doesn't like changes in routine. It doesn't like lack of sleep, it doesn't like being hungry, it doesn't like being thirsty, and it doesn't like changes in the weather." That's a reminder of the good, old-fashioned primary care tips for taking care of headache.

Paul N. Williams, MD: That's right. Conservative supportive management goes by the wayside because we focus on the medications. But I thought that was a really nice way to start the episode.

Watto: I asked him about cervicogenic headaches, which I guess you have to diagnose by giving a cervical steroid injection and see if the patient feels better, but he said he doesn't do this. This is expert opinion territory. He asks his patients with chronic headache about cervical neck pain, because if they have it, he goes after it with physical therapy which can help with the headaches. I thought that was a great pearl that I hadn't heard before.

Give the audience a pearl from this great episode.

Williams: We talked about foundational treatments. We reviewed some of the abortive therapies and over-the-counter products. Some patients do quite well with acetaminophen or NSAIDs. We also talked about triptans, which are the standard medicines that we all know about. You can use those in combination, by the way. Patients can take their triptan with the NSAID that works best for them. They don't have to be used one at a time, trying one and then trying the other one if the first one doesn't help. Dr Weber gave us practical guides in terms of which triptans he favors. He mentioned rizatriptan and naratriptan, which is one that I had not used with any frequency. I've seen rizatriptan a fair amount and that one seems to be covered by most insurances. He favors those two triptans.

He also reminded us that even though there is theoretical concern for serotonin toxicity because these are serotonergic and you'll see these scary pop-ups in your electronic health record, that concern is almost purely theoretical. It hasn't been borne out. They are really safe medications to use. But do use caution if you have a patient with known cardiovascular disease or cerebrovascular disease. We spent a fair amount of time talking about chest pressure as a common side effect. We also talked about some of the newer agents.

Watto: I wanted to add something about the triptans. Part of the reason he favors rizatriptan and naratriptan is that they are newer. He thinks they tend to have fewer side effects. But he did mention sumatriptan because it comes in the most different formulations. If patients have severe nausea, there is a subcutaneous version of sumatriptan and also an intranasal version.

The new kids on the block are the CGRP receptor antagonists, and they are available for preventive and abortive therapy. The abortive therapies are probably what people will be seeing most often in primary care — ubrogepant and rimegepant. Patients can take ubrogepant for abortive therapy and then repeat it if necessary. That's similar to what patients are used to with the triptans. Rimegepant is taken once daily for abortive therapy or every other day as a preventive agent. Those are two of the agents that you might see patients taking. I've certainly started to see them.

There are also a whole bunch of monoclonal antibodies that affect the CGRP pathway. Those are given either once a month by subcutaneous injection or once every 3 months, and one is an infusion. They are pretty safe, and the big appeal is that they can be used in patients with cardiovascular disease. He also said that he has some patients who take them because triptans can cause the medication overuse side effect, but the CGRP receptor antagonists don't. It's an option for some patients to take the CGRP receptor antagonists on certain days for abortive therapy and then they can take the triptans the rest of the month.

Dr Weber said that in his practice, these new drugs have really been great, which I can imagine, if you're a specialist, patients have exhausted many of the typical therapies we offer in primary care.

Paul, bring us home here. What else should we tell the audience about? In primary care, what can we offer these patients?

Williams: A lot of the stuff we can offer works, by the way. It's exciting to have fancy new medications to use, but you don't even necessarily need to get to that point. We have a lot of medications that we can use for migraine prophylaxis, such as the beta-blockers and antihypertensives. Candesartan was a new one to me, an angiotensin receptor blocker that apparently has good evidence for migraine prophylaxis and Dr Weber swears by it. We talked about some of the antiseizure medications, such as topiramate, which is probably the one with the most comfort in primary care. Some older folks may be using valproic acid or the tricyclic antidepressants (amitriptyline and nortriptyline) because people with migraine often will have comorbid anxiety or trouble sleeping, so I find that can sometimes be an effective medication or if they have comorbid neuropathic pain.

Another one that was new to me was venlafaxine as migraine prophylaxis. It's not something I'd heard about before this episode. Certainly, for someone with chronic pain or a mood disorder that's comorbid with migraines, it may be worth a shot. So there are options that we can exhaust first, and we may actually be doing our specialist friends a favor by trying one or two of these in advance, because then by the time the patient gets to the neurologist, it makes the prior authorization process much easier for the newer, fancier-pants medications that we're all very excited about.

Watto: Paul, we've teased this fantastic podcast episode filled with so much more great stuff, so people should check out Headache Update: Making Migraines Less Painful with Dr. Kevin Weber. Until next time, this has been another episode of The Curbsiders, bringing you a little knowledge food for your brain hole.

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