Migraine Headache: Our position on five medical treatment options that patients with migraines should avoid - Padda Institute Center for Interventional Pain Management

Migraine Headache: Our position on five medical treatment options that patients with migraines should avoid

Headache is among the principal reasons for physician visits and a common cause of emergency department visits. The costs of tests and treatments for headache are not insubstantial, and when unwarranted, they needlessly expose patients to potential harm. In a recent study of the treatments and procedures that contribute most to the $13 billion dollar annual cost of outpatient neurology visits, migraine alone was the diagnostic category with the second highest costs. For example, using data from the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey, CT scans ordered at neurology visits (many of which were probably done to evaluate headache) resulted in costs of roughly $358 million dollars.

Five tests and procedures associated with low-value care in headache medicine according to the American Headache Society (AHS).  Listed are five things that “physicians and patients should question” in order to make “wise decisions about the most appropriate care based on the individual situation.”

 

[box] (1) avoiding neuroimaging studies with stable headaches that meet the criteria for migraine

(2) except for emergency situations, computed tomography should not be performed for headache when magnetic resonance imaging is available

(3) outside of a clinical trial, surgical deactivation of migraine trigger points is not recommended

(4) opioids or butalbital-containing mediations should not be prescribed as first-line treatment for recurrent headache disorders

(5) prolonged or frequent use of over-the-counter pain medication is not recommended for headache [/box]

(1) avoiding neuroimaging studies with stable headaches that meet the criteria for migraine

In clinical practice, it is common to encounter patients with headache who have undergone multiple imaging procedures. These often involve exposure to ionizing radiation. The reasons for these repeated and unnecessary scans are not well understood, but probably include physician fear of missing a dangerous cause of headache and a desire to allay patient anxiety over possible missed abnormalities, especially when treatment is unsuccessful. In some cases, duplicate scans may be ordered because the physician is unaware of previous testing. The risk of unneeded testing may be especially high in the emergency department, where physicians are unfamiliar with the patient and fear missing serious causes of headache.

In ordering diagnostic tests, though, the possible adverse effects of testing must be balanced against the likely benefits to the patient. In particular, the potential adverse health effects of radiation exposure should be taken into consideration when ordering diagnostic testing for headache. In many situations, it is very unlikely that a repeat imaging study of the head will identify any abnormality that will alter management. The radiation risks of CT scanning are not negligible. Younger people are at higher risk of radiation adverse effects than older people.

Numerous evidence-based guidelines agree that the risk of intracranial disease is not elevated in migraine. However, not all severe headaches are migraine. To avoid missing patients with more serious headaches, a migraine diagnosis should be made after a clinical history and an examination that documents the absence of any neurologic findings, such as papilledema.

The key element is a change in headache symptomology or a new diagnosis of severe headache.

(2) except for emergency situations, computed tomography should not be performed for headache when magnetic resonance imaging is available

When neuroimaging is needed for the evaluation of headache, good quality evidence supports the view that MRI is more sensitive than CT scanning to detect most serious underlying causes of headache. The exception is settings in which acute intracranial bleeding is suspected. A Canadian government health technology assessment group recently reviewed the evidence and cost-effectiveness of the use of CT and MRI scanning for the evaluation of patients with headache. The researchers found that when performed for the indication of headache, the diagnostic yield of CT scans was 2%, while that of MRI scans was 5%. Because MRI was better at detecting abnormalities, the cost per abnormal finding of CT scans was $2409 compared with $957 for MRI.

When neuroimaging for headache is indicated, MRI is preferred over CT, except in emergency settings when hemorrhage, acute stroke, or head trauma are suspected. MRI is more sensitive than CT for the detection of neoplasm, vascular disease, posterior fossa and cervicomedullary lesions, and high and low intracranial pressure disorders. CT of the head is associated with substantial radiation exposure that may elevate the risk of later cancers, while there are no known biologic risks from MRI.

(3) outside of a clinical trial, surgical deactivation of migraine trigger points is not recommended

The idea of a surgical “solution” to migraine is inherently attractive to patients. Interest in surgical approaches to migraine has been motivated by serendipitous improvement in headaches noted in patients who have undergone various plastic surgery “forehead rejuvenation” procedures. These procedures are based on the premise that contraction of facial or other muscles impinges on peripheral branches of the trigeminal nerve.

The procedures involved are often referred to collectively as “migraine deactivation surgery,” although a variety of surgical sites and procedures are involved. These include resection of the corrugator supercilii muscle with the placement of fat grafts in the site, “temporal release” procedures involving dissection of the glabellar area, transection of the zygomatical temporal branch of the trigeminal nerve, and resection of the semispinalis capitus muscle with placement of fat grafts in the area with the aim of reducing pressure on the occipital nerve. Finally, some surgeons also perform nasal septoplasty or otherwise attempt to address possible intranasal trigger points.

The value of this form of “migraine surgery” is still a research question. Observational studies and a small controlled trial suggest possible benefit. However, large multicenter, randomized controlled trials with long-term follow-up are needed to provide accurate estimates of the effectiveness and harms of surgery. Long-term side effects are unknown but potentially a concern

(4) opioids or butalbital-containing mediations should not be prescribed as first-line treatment for recurrent headache disorders

Primary recurrent headache disorders (of which migraine, tension-type, and cluster headache are the most common) are conditions of long duration for which such treatment will be used repetitively over many years. Risks and harms that are unimportant in treating a single attack can become important when treatment is used for long periods of time. Once established, medication overuse can be difficult to treat and recidivism is common. Thus, treatments such as triptans or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, which are not associated with dependence or sedation, are preferred first-line.  However, there are many clinical situations in which the use of opiates and butalbital is appropriate, including some situations where they are first-line treatments. These include patients for whom triptans or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are contraindicated or ineffective.

These medications impair alertness and may produce dependence or addiction syndromes, an undesirable risk for the young, otherwise healthy people most likely to have recurrent headaches. They increase the risk that episodic headache disorders such as migraine will become chronic, and may produce heightened sensitivity to pain. Use may be appropriate when other treatments fail or are contraindicated. Such patients should be monitored for the development of chronic headache.  This is not meant to imply that opioid or butalbital medications are always inappropriate treatments for recurrent headache treatments. Rather, it is meant to address the appropriate order in which medication classes should typically be used.

(5) prolonged or frequent use of over-the-counter pain medication is not recommended for headache

Over-the-counter (OTC) medications are appropriate treatment for occasional headaches if they work reliably without intolerable side effects. Frequent use (especially of caffeine-containing medications) can lead to an increase in headaches, resulting in “medication overuse headache” (MOH). To avoid this, OTC medication should be limited to no more than 2 days per week. In addition to MOH, prolonged overuse of acetaminophen can cause liver damage, while overuse of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can lead to gastrointestinal bleeding.