Conference Coverage

Opioids for headache?



The use of opiates in the treatment of headache has a controversial history, and it remains a matter of debate today. Some believe that the medications, though risky, can be a useful tool in the neurologist’s treatment arsenal, while others argue that opioids are just too risky when there are other, safer alternatives available.

Paul Rizzoli, MD, clinical director of the John R. Graham Headache Center at Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital in Boston.

Dr. Paul Rizzoli

Those were the cruxes of arguments put forward by Paul Rizzoli, MD, and Christopher H. Gottschalk, MD, who conducted individual talks at the 2021 Scottsdale Headache Symposium. Dr. Rizzoli, associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, Boston, argued in favor of the use of opioids and butalbital-containing medications. Dr. Gottschalk, assistant professor of neurology at Yale University, New Haven, Conn., argued against their use.

Christopher H. Gottschalk, MD, assistant professor of neurology at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

Dr. Christopher H. Gottschalk

In certain situations opioids are worth the risk

Whether or not to use opioids in the treatment of headache is “a reasonable question, because these medications can clearly be seen as having risk. So perhaps another way to frame this question is as a risk-benefit issue. Are these medications worth the risk? How useful is the benefit of opioids, if the consequence is dependence or addiction?” Dr. Rizzoli began.

Although reviews show effectiveness of opioids in treating migraine, a three-part review in 2012 found greater efficacy of dihydroergotamine (DHE), ketorolac, and chlorpromazine. That’s not surprising, said Dr. Rizzoli, since those competing drugs are migraine-specific.

Dr. Rizzoli quoted a 2014 review indicating that there were incomplete data on the relative efficacy of opioids versus other analgesics, and for some patients opioids would likely be the optimal treatment, such as those who have contraindications to ergot-type medications or neuroleptic medications, pregnant women, or patients who don’t respond to other medications.

Dr. Rizzoli noted that The International Association for the Study of Pain has concluded that no other oral medications provide immediate and effective pain relief, and that short-term use rarely leads to addiction.

“So, to me, the answer is not to avoid opioids or outlaw them but instead to use them judiciously and infrequently, and in a short term or rescue fashion,” said Dr. Rizzoli.

He pointed out that physicians accept risks of other medications, and act to mitigate those risks. He said that risk mitigation with opioids can take the form of avoiding prescriptions in some situations, like when patients have a personal or family history of substance abuse, or in cases of some behavioral or emotional disorders.

Dr. Rizzoli went on to discuss the use of butalbital, which acts as a CNS depressant and has a variety of effects, including sedation, anxiolytic, hypnotic, and antiepileptic effects, but it is only a weak analgesic, but it nevertheless works in headache, said Dr. Rizzoli, citing patient reports and personal experience.

“It’s difficult to appreciate this theme of efficacy behind all the hype in the literature and in the press against butalbital, and the fact that it has not been adequately studied. But I would submit that the fact that we are even having this discussion is support enough for the use of butalbital. If butalbital either didn’t work or was simply a drug of abuse, it would likely have faded away by now,” said Dr. Rizzoli. He conceded that butalbital can be overused and may lead episodic headache to become chronic daily headache, but he noted that Seymour Solomon, MD, professor emeritus at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York, has estimated that removal of butalbital from the market would reduce chronic headache in the general population by only a small fraction of one percent.

Butalbital also has another interesting effect, which is that patients may quickly return to normal functioning after the headache resolves. “Maybe this is all due to management of anxiety, the presumed mechanism of action of barbiturates. So, instead of lobbying for its removal, I would propose that we should take a closer look at what’s going on here, and what the mechanism of action of this fairly interesting compound might be,” said Dr. Rizzoli.

Dr. Rizzoli also said there is some evidence that migraine-specific drugs also affect the tolerance to opioid drugs. “Somehow, they seem to interact with the opioid pain system. If that’s true, the implication is that you probably cannot escape the opioid receptors in the management of migraine,” said Dr. Rizzoli.

Ultimately, he supports the judicious use of opioids and butalbital containing-medications for headache relief. “My argument is that it is just too simplistic to cease use of these meds. Yes, they should be used in a restricted and careful way, but not abandoned,” said Dr. Rizzoli.


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