Headache Treatments: Ongoing Studies

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Ongoing research to develop new headache and migraine treatments is focused on providing faster pain relief, reducing drug side effects, and decreasing headache recurrences.

It often takes about 10 to 15 years for a new medication or treatment to receive approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Patients who experience migraines or chronic headaches should contact a qualified health care provider to develop an effective course of treatment.

According to the National Headache Foundation (NHF), headache treatments that work quickly, cause few side effects, and are easy to use are currently being developed. These treatments include the following:

  • Generic versions of approved drugs (e.g., oral and nasal sumatriptan)
  • New delivery methods for approved drugs (e.g., inhalation device, skin patch [also called transdermal patch], nasal powder, nasal spray)
  • New indications for approved drugs (i.e., treating headaches and migraine using medications that are approved to treat other medical conditions)
  • New medications (e.g., combination of sumatriptan and naproxen)
  • New medical procedures and devices (e.g., neurostimulator implantation)

New delivery methods include inhalation devices, which allow the drug to enter the bloodstream faster and may lead to more rapid pain relief, and transdermal patches, which release controlled amounts of medication through the skin, maintaining precise blood levels of the drug. Other treatments that are in development include nasal powders, nasal sprays, and buffered oral medications, which allow pain medication to enter the bloodstream faster and may provide faster pain relief.

Research is ongoing to determine if there is a connection between certain types of headaches and a congenital heart defect called patent foramen ovale (PTO). Before birth, there is a normal opening between the upper chambers of the heart (called the atria) that allows blood flow to bypass the lungs. Usually, this hole closes shortly after birth; however, in about 1 out of every 3 or 4 people, it does not close as it should. When this occurs, the condition is called patent foramen ovale.

If there are no additional heart defects, patent foramen ovale often does not cause symptoms. Some studies have shown that performing surgery to close the hole may reduce the incidence of migraine and cluster headache in patients who have the condition. Further research is necessary to determine the connection between headache and PFO.

Medications used to treat other conditions that are being studied to determine if they can also be used to treat headache and migraine include anticonvulsants (used to treat epilepsy; e.g., Tripleptal, Neurontin), olmesartan (an angiotensin II-receptor blocker used to treat high blood pressure; e.g., Benicar), and donepezil (used to treat Alzheimer's disease; e.g., Aricept).

Some drugs that are currently used to treat migraines (e.g., triptans) are being studied regarding menstrual migraine. These medications include frovatriptan (Frova), rizatriptan (Maxalt), eletriptan (Relpax), and butorphanol nasal spray.

Other headache treatments that are being studied include neurostimulation and iontophoresis. Neurostimulation, which is sometimes used to treat other types of chronic pain, may also be used to treat headache. This treatment involves using electrical impulses from an implanted device to interrupt pain signals.

Iontophoresis uses mild electrical current to deliver pain medications. In this treatment, pain medication in an electrically-charged solution is placed on the skin, an electrode is placed over the solution, and a mild current is applied to propel the medication into the skin.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 17 May 2009

Last Modified: 18 Sep 2015