Narcotics are not only ineffective for the treatment of headaches, but they can also make headaches worse and transform an episodic migraine into chronic. A study mentioned in a previous post showed that more than half of migraine sufferers who went to an ER were given a narcotic.
A new study recently published in the journal of the International Headache Society, Cephalalgia showed that if patients presenting with a headache to an ER are treated with an injection of opiates (narcotics) they will stay in the hospital longer than if no narcotics are given. This treatment also leads to an increased risk of return visits to the emergency department within seven days.
The study was conducted by two neurologists, Dr. McCarthy at Puget Sound VA Healthcare System in Seattle and Dr. Cowan at Stanford University in California. They examined charts of 574 people and discovered that 23% received a narcotic when they were seen at an emergency department. Only 53% were given an injection of a drug recommended by a published consensus of headache experts. These include sumatriptan (Imitrex, the only injectable triptan), prochlorperazine (Compazine), metoclopramide (Reglan), chlorpromazine (Thorazine), ketorolac (Toradol), aspirin, acetaminophen, and dihydroergotamine. The remaining 24% were given an injection of another non-narcotic drug.
Patients who were given opiates were 4 times more likely to have a long stay, compared with patients given first-line recommended medications. 69 participants had at least one readmission for headache, of whom 20 returned to the emergency department within seven days. Interestingly, patients who had a CAT or an MRI scan of the brain had a significantly higher rate of early return visits, compared with those who did not have neuroimaging. Approximately 8% of people given opiates had early return visits, compared with 3% of patients given first-line recommended drugs.
Dr. McCarthy was quoted saying that “Opiates have shown less headache pain reduction, higher rates of headache recurrence, and increased sedation, compared with first-line recommended specific headache medications”. He added that regardless of whether the acute headache was diagnosed as a migraine or a tension-type headache, it is likely to respond to most non-narcotic injectable treatments.
An editorial accompanying this article concluded that “The most important intervention emergency physicians can deliver for their headache patients is to connect them with outpatient physicians savvy about headache management, who will then provide these headache patients with appropriate acute therapeutics, initiate preventive therapy, and counsel their patients against receiving opioids in the emergency department”.Read More