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Migraine drugs underused

May 10, 2016

(ABINGTON, PA) - About 38 million Americans suffer from migraines in the United States, according to the Migraine Research Foundation. The most commonly used and effective classes of medication, triptans and DHE (Dihydroergotamine), however, have a black box warning for two subtypes of migraine because of risk of stroke. Now researchers at Abington-Jefferson Health have shown that patients who were given the drugs off-label had no stroke or other cardiovascular side-effects from taking the drugs.

Not only does the study suggest these drugs are safe for this subset of migraine patients, it could also have implications for the nearly 10 million migraine sufferers who experience auras - a disturbance in vision, touch, speech, thinking, or strength that usually precedes a migraine headache.

"There are not enough medicines out there to appropriately manage migraine headaches," says senior author Brad Klein, M.D., Medical Director of the Headache Center at Abington Hospital-Jefferson Health. "At a time in history when an unprecedented number of people are getting hooked on narcotic opiates by way of prescribed medications - as is the case with migraine sufferers as well - we owe it to ourselves as physicians to try medications that could work without the risk of addiction," says Klein. The study was published in the journal Headache.

Migraines are thought to cause pain because they cause a swelling of the blood vessels feeding the brain. However, two subtypes of migraines, basilar and hemiplegic, are thought to cause pain by doing the opposite - constricting rather than swelling the blood vessels of the brain. Triptans and DHE are both thought to relieve migraine, in part, by constricting blood vessels. Early on, drug developers worried that adding more constriction to basilar and hemiplegic migraines could put these patients at greater risk of stroke, so these patients were excluded from the initial studies. "As a result," says Klein, "no one ever actually showed that these drugs were dangerous - they were just assumed to be dangerous based on their mechanism of action. And recent research suggests that the auras are not due to blood vessel constriction."

To determine whether there was any increased risk of stroke in basilar and hemiplegic patients taking triptans or DHE, Klein and researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston did a retrospective analysis, collecting data from four headache centers around the country. They searched for patients who had symptoms pointing to a basilar or hemiplegic migraine diagnosis and also received either a triptan or DHE treatment. Of the 80 patients they identified, they saw no cases of stroke or heart attack during the period of routine follow up, over several months.

Although others had studied this effect before, this research had the largest patient cohort to date, and was also one of the first to examine patients treated with DHE.

Migraines can be very complex to diagnose and there are few certified headache specialists in the United States - only 500 for the 38 million sufferers, according to the Migraine Research Foundation. "Because auras are associated with basilar and hemiplegic migraine, many physicians refuse to give these drugs to any patients experiencing an aura out of a false sense of precaution," says Dr. Klein. Instead migraine sufferers may be given other, less effective drugs such as opioid narcotics.
-end-
The authors report no conflicts of interest.

Article reference: P.G. Paul et al., "A retrospective analysis of triptan and dhe use for basilar and hemiplegic migraine," Headache, DOI: 10.1111/head.12804, 2016.

For more information, contact Edyta Zielinska, 215-955-5291, edyta.zielinska@jefferson.edu.

About Jefferson

Our newly formed organization, Jefferson, encompasses Thomas Jefferson University and Jefferson Health, representing our academic and clinical entities. Together, the people of Jefferson, 19,000 strong, provide the highest-quality, compassionate clinical care for patients, educate the health professionals of tomorrow, and discover new treatments and therapies that will define the future of health care.

Jefferson Health comprises five hospitals, 17 outpatient and urgent care locations, as well as physician practices and everywhere we deliver care throughout the city and suburbs across Philadelphia, Montgomery and Bucks Counties in Pa., and Camden County in New Jersey. Together, these facilities serve nearly 73,000 inpatients, 239,000 emergency patients and 1.7 million outpatient visits annually. Thomas Jefferson University Hospital is the largest freestanding academic medical center in Philadelphia. Abington Hospital is the largest community teaching hospital in Montgomery or Bucks counties. Other hospitals include Jefferson Hospital for Neuroscience in Center City Philadelphia; Methodist Hospital in South Philadelphia; and Abington-Lansdale Hospital in Hatfield Township.

Thomas Jefferson University enrolls more than 3,800 future physicians, scientists, nurses and healthcare professionals in the Sidney Kimmel Medical College (SKMC), Jefferson Colleges of Biomedical Sciences, Health Professions, Nursing, Pharmacy, Population Health and is home of the National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center.

For more information and a complete listing of Jefferson services and locations, visit http://www.jefferson.edu.

Thomas Jefferson University

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