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Headache Medications

Headache medications are prescribed to alleviate the immediate pain and to prevent additional headaches.

Your doctor will recommend one or more headache medications depending on the following factors:

Medications for Migraine Headaches

Medications prescribed for the treatment of migraine headaches may be categorized as "acute" or "preventive" treatments.

Acute medications, also called "abortive" medications, are taken as soon as symptoms occur to relieve pain and restore function. Preventive treatment are taken daily to reduce the severity of future attacks or keep them from happening in the first place.

Acute Migraine Medications

Medications that provide acute treatments for migraine headaches include the following:

Taking headache medications more than three times a week may lead to medication overuse headache (previously called rebound headache), in which the initial headache is relieved temporarily but reappears as the drug wears off. Taking more of the drug to treat the new headache leads to progressively shorter periods of pain relief and results in a pattern of recurrent chronic headache. Headache pain ranges from moderate to severe and may occur with nausea or irritability. It may take weeks for these headaches to end once the drug is stopped.

Preventive Migraine Medications

Some people with frequent and severe migraine may also benefit from using a preventive medication. Preventive medications are considered if the migraines occur one or more times per week, or if the migraines are particularly disabling. Preventive medicines are also recommended for individuals who use other headache medications more than three times a week.

A preventive medication may be used for a trial period of two to three months to assess its effectiveness and determine if it is tolerable.

There are several medications available to help prevent migraines. Most were initially marketed for medical conditions other than migraine. These include the following:

Medications for Tension-Type Headaches

Medications used for the treatment of tension type headaches include the following:

Medications for Cluster Headaches

Treatment options for cluster headache include:

Certain antipsychotic drugs, calcium-channel blockers (verapamil), and anticonvulsants (valproic acid) can reduce pain severity and frequency of cluster headache attacks. In extreme cases, electrical stimulation of the occipital nerve to prevent nerve signaling or surgical procedures that destroy or cut certain facial nerves may provide relief.

Take your headache medication exactly as directed.


Reference: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS)