So we have talked about lifestyle habits to prevent migraines, all the things your patient can do to prevent migraines. But your patient is still having frequent migraines or the migraines are significantly impacting the patient’s functioning. When do you consider adding a daily medication to prevent migraines? The mark I use for deciding when a preventive medication is needed is one migraine/week. For me, that is when the conversation needs to start. Any less than that, the kids may be unnecessarily exposed to medication effects and side effects.
And not every kid/teen needs to take a daily preventive medication, even when they have 1 migraine per week. It really depends on how much impact that migraine is having. Are they missing school with every migraine? Does the migraine last for several days, leading to even more missed school? Are they missing out on desired activities, like sports, scouts, music or dance? Are they missing out on time with friends and family? Does the patient want to try a daily medication? Is the family in favor or opposed to it? It is a choice that is made after discussion with everyone involved.
However, when the patient is having more than 1 migraine per week, it is a good idea to consider a daily medication, as it is likely that migraine is taking a toll of the patient and family. What you choose depends on the age of the patient and what other issues they are challenged with. Do you start with a prescribed medication or supplements/vitamins?
Supplements: If you and/or the family are on the fence about starting a medication, a nice intervention to add is a supplement known to help headaches. We commonly will recommend magnesium, riboflavin or Coenzyme Q10. I always advocate for using a single product at a time, taking it for at least 3 months and evaluating effectiveness. Again, you need to keep the good data. There are many combination products on the market. I have seen one which contains 10 supplements in one tab! The problem with combination products is that you are unable to figure out what exactly is helping, therefore are ‘married’ to a particular supplement formulation. And you know that’s going to end up being expensive. A good quality supplement, which can be obtained at the local pharmacy, is totally adequate to try and there are often opportunities to save money on them. These supplements are well tolerated and can be effective. Here’s a link: Supplements That Help Headaches
One supplement to mention is butterbur, a shrub grown in Europe and Asia, and used as a migraine preventive and for allergies. The concerns with butterbur are that it can be toxic to the liver; the unprocessed butterbur contains chemicals called pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs), which can cause liver damage. The only butterbur product you should use is labeled ‘PA- free’, meaning the PA has been processed to remove it. It is unlikely that you would ever find butterbur not labeled this way. Petadolex is the most common butterbur on the market and is PA-free. There are side effects as well such as belching and GI issues, and allergy and asthma, and people allergic to ragweed, chrysanthemums, marigold and daisies should avoid it. Butterbur has fallen out of favor due to report of hepatic issues, though a recent paper has refuted that claim. I have a few patients on it, tolerate it well, and find it helpful, when prescribed medications have not been. I check their LFTs yearly just to be sure. I mention it here to further your knowledge, as Dr. Google will be sure to mention it, when your families are searching for migraine remedies.
Medications: The aim of daily preventive medication is to decrease the frequency, duration and severity of migraines. Other benefits can include improving responsiveness to the rescue medications and preventing migraines from becoming chronic (vs. episodic). Your choice of medication depends on the patient’s age, medical history/comorbidities, and particular circumstances. Generally all migraine medications for kids and teens are dosed low and titrated up in dose as needed and tolerated. Groups of medications commonly used for migraine prevention are antihistamines (cyproheptadine), tricyclic antidepressants (amitriptyline, nortriptyline), anticonvulsants (topiramate, zonisamide, gabapentin), beta blockers (propranolol) or calcium channel blockers (verapamil).
Before we talk about the pros and cons of each group of medications, I would like to bring up an interesting research study you may or may not be aware of. A few years ago, the headache program at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital undertook a multi-site double blind medication trial, comparing amitriptyline, topiramate and placebo, for the prevention of migraine in children ages 8-17 years, the CHAMPS study. The headache program I work in participated in this research project. The study was unusual because it was double blind (no one knew which medication each subject was taking), and it included placebo as one of the treatment arms. The research study was terminated early because the findings showed no difference between the 3 treatments arms. The 2 medications both had more side effects than placebo, and there were also serious adverse events in each group. They conclude that “the risk to benefit profile of the two most commonly used preventive medications does not suggest their use as first-line intervention for pediatric migraine.” Basically, they found that placebo was as good as or better than medications and had fewer side effects. Here’s link to their results: CHAMPS clinical trial publication
This of course presents a dilemma to pediatric providers caring for kids with headaches. You can’t exactly prescribe a placebo and with the family knowing you are doing that, it negates the placebo effect. It is certainly another reason to continue doing research into pediatric headache, and to encourage our families to participate. We are doing a lot of research at our center, brain imaging, studies looking at the psychological factors impacting episodic and chronic pain, and clinical protocols. Our families are very interested in participating with research, as they see the value for themselves and for others.
When thinking about daily medications, we all need to be aware that studies are often not done on the pediatric population, just extrapolated from adult data. This is all the more reason to be cautious in prescribing, and encourage appropriate lifestyle measures to decrease the likelihood of migraine.
In my next post, I will review commonly used migraine preventive medications. Some pediatric providers may not feel comfortable starting a daily migraine preventive. But the judicious use of a low dose of medication may really help your patients with their migraines. It may prevent episodic migraine from becoming chronic, and prevent a functioning patient from becoming disabled. These are all worthy efforts.