Anyone who has ever experienced a migraine knows that this condition is much worse than your typical headache—migraines can cause an intense, throbbing pain that usually lasts from 4 to 72 hours and may be accompanied by sensitivity to light, nausea, and vomiting. Chronic migraines are debilitating, and up until now, there has been no medication that can completely prevent them from occurring. Recently, however, Scientific American reported on a new type of drug that soothes nerve cells and could stop migraines before they start.
Honing In On the Cause of Migraines
The cause of migraines is not fully understood, and as a result, treatment options have been somewhat limited. Beta blockers and calcium channel blockers, both of which are primarily used to treat high blood pressure, are sometimes prescribed for off-label use due to their ability to relieve migraines in some people. However, their mechanism of action is unknown, and not all migraine sufferers benefit from this type of treatment. Ergotamine and caffeine combination drugs, such as Migergot, are another option that sometimes help people who get migraines that last 48 hours or more, but they often cause side effects such as nausea and vomiting.
Triptans were the first class of drugs developed specifically to treat migraines; these medications (which include Imitrex and Maxalt) work by narrowing blood vessels and blocking pain pathways in the brain. They are effective at minimizing migraine pain in many people, but unfortunately, they only work after the pain has already started. Patients are instructed to take their triptan medication at the first sign of a migraine, and the drug usually starts working within about two hours. For people who get chronic migraines, this can mean that their daily activities are still frequently disrupted by pain.
Developments in Migraine Research
Fortunately, other medication options may be available soon. A group of neurologists have pinpointed a hypersensitive nerve system that triggers migraine pain, and they have been testing drugs to reduce the activity of these nerves.
The specific neurotransmitter that may be causing the pain is calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP), a chemical which is found at high levels in the blood of people experiencing a migraine. With this in mind, researchers have developed a new CGRP-targeting drug. In clinical trials, the drug decreased headache days (i.e. days during which a migraine attack occurs) by 60% in participants with chronic migraines, and 16% of participants remained completely migraine free 12 weeks into a 24-week study.
Researchers are now conducting larger clinical trials to confirm their findings. If this new type of migraine medication receives FDA approval, it could be the first time people with migraines have access to a preventative treatment.