I recently gave Botox injections to my oldest patient – an 96-year-old man who is otherwise in excellent mental and physical health has been suffering from daily severe cervicogenic (neck-related) headaches for many years. He had tried pain killers, nerve blocks, radiofrequency ablation (destruction) of nerves in his neck, all with no relief. A month after being treated with Botox he reported having almost no headaches. I have also given Botox to a number of patients with chronic migraines in their 70s and 80s.

At the last scientific meeting of the American Headache Society Cleveland Clinic neurologists presented a report entitled, Safety and Efficacy of OnabotulinumtoxinA (Botox) for Chronic Migraines in the Elderly. They described 28 patients who were older than 65, had an average age of 73 and who were treated with Botox injections for their chronic migraine headaches. They compared the safety and efficacy of Botox injections in this group with that of 700 patients aged 18 to 65 who participated in PREEMPT II study of Botox for chronic migraine (one of the two studies that led to the FDA approval of Botox for chronic migraines, in which we also participated). There was no significant difference in side effects between the younger and the older groups, except for a slightly higher incidence of neck pain after the injections in the elderly. The improvement was also comparable – after Botox the elderly had 11 fewer headache days a month compared with 9 fewer days in the younger group.

In conclusion, while many migraine medications are more likely to cause side effects in the elderly, this is not the case with Botox. Also, Botox appears to be as effective in the elderly with chronic migraines as in younger patients.

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Looking for health advice is one of the most common reason people search the web. Many websites provide health information and some even offer self-diagnosis using a symptom checker. After entering all of the symptoms the website suggests a possible diagnosis and advises to take some home remedies or see a doctor. A study recently mentioned on this blog showed that Wikipedia had errors in 9 out of 10 articles on different medical conditions.

Another recent study by Harvard researchers examined the accuracy of the sites that offer self-diagnosis. Not surprisingly, this study also found that the online programs are often wrong. The results were published in the British Medical Journal.

The lead author Ateev Mehrotra, commented that “These tools may be useful in patients who are trying to decide whether they should get to a doctor quickly, but in many cases, users should be cautious and not take the information they receive from online symptom checkers as gospel.”

Some of these symptom checkers were developed by prestigious institutions, including Harvard and other medical schools, major hospital groups, insurance companies, and some government agencies (including the United Kingdom’s National Health Service).

The researchers presented 45 hypothetical cases (including headaches) to test 23 different symptom checkers. Only 34% listed the correct diagnosis first and the correct diagnosis was in the top three possibilities in 51% of cases.

Dr. Mehrotra said that “It’s not nearly as important for a patient with fever, headache, stiff neck, and confusion to know whether they have meningitis or encephalitis as it is for them to know that they should get to an ER quickly.”

Of the 23 symptom checkers 58% provided correct advice and in more serious conditions, it correctly recommended emergency room visit in 80 percent of cases.

To complicate matters, the checkers with the most accurate diagnoses (Isabel, iTriage, Mayo Clinic, and Symcat) were not the ones that were best at recommending the appropriate level of care (Healthychildren.org, Steps2Care, and Symptify).

The researchers compared the online symptom checkers with a live telephone triage nurse offered by many insurance companies. The accuracy of live nurses is between 61% and 69%, so these are more accurate accurate, but also leave a lot of room for improvement. Hopefully, these online programs will continue to evolve, but at this point, you should not rely on them.

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The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has just released a new strengthened warning about NSAIDs. Prescription and over-the-counter NSAIDs (ibuprofen, naproxen, nabumetone, diclofenac, and other) are widely used for the treatment of pain including different types of headaches. They are fairly safe, especially in young healthy people who take NSAIDs for an occasional headache. However, the risk of strokes and heart attacks and heart failure is higher in older people, especially those with risk factors such as smoking, diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, and other. These risks are present with all NSAIDs, except for aspirin, which in fact can sometimes lower these risks. So, when in doubt, take aspirin, which is the main ingredient of my product, Migralex. Migralex is fast acting and is less likely to upset your stomach because of the buffering effect of magnesium. You can buy Migralex on Migralex.com, Amazon.com, and CVS stores.

Here is the full text of FDA’s announcement:

Safety Announcement
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is strengthening an existing label warning that non-aspirin nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) increase the chance of a heart attack or stroke. Based on our comprehensive review of new safety information, we are requiring updates to the drug labels of all prescription NSAIDs. As is the case with current prescription NSAID labels, the Drug Facts labels of over-the-counter (OTC) non-aspirin NSAIDs already contain information on heart attack and stroke risk. We will also request updates to the OTC non-aspirin NSAID Drug Facts labels.
Patients taking NSAIDs should seek medical attention immediately if they experience symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath or trouble breathing, weakness in one part or side of their body, or slurred speech.

NSAIDs are widely used to treat pain and fever from many different long- and short-term medical conditions such as arthritis, menstrual cramps, headaches, colds, and the flu. NSAIDs are available by prescription and OTC. Examples of NSAIDs include ibuprofen, naproxen, diclofenac, and celecoxib (see Table 1 for a list of NSAIDs).

The risk of heart attack and stroke with NSAIDs, either of which can lead to death, was first described in 2005 in the Boxed Warning and Warnings and Precautions sections of the prescription drug labels. Since then, we have reviewed a variety of new safety information on prescription and OTC NSAIDs, including observational studies,1 a large combined analysis of clinical trials,2 and other scientific publications.1 These studies were also discussed at a joint meeting of the Arthritis Advisory Committee and Drug Safety and Risk Management Advisory Committee held on February 10-11, 2014.

Based on our review and the advisory committees’ recommendations, the prescription NSAID labels will be revised to reflect the following information:

The risk of heart attack or stroke can occur as early as the first weeks of using an NSAID. The risk may increase with longer use of the NSAID.
The risk appears greater at higher doses.
It was previously thought that all NSAIDs may have a similar risk. Newer information makes it less clear that the risk for heart attack or stroke is similar for all NSAIDs; however, this newer information is not sufficient for us to determine that the risk of any particular NSAID is definitely higher or lower than that of any other particular NSAID.
NSAIDs can increase the risk of heart attack or stroke in patients with or without heart disease or risk factors for heart disease. A large number of studies support this finding, with varying estimates of how much the risk is increased, depending on the drugs and the doses studied.
In general, patients with heart disease or risk factors for it have a greater likelihood of heart attack or stroke following NSAID use than patients without these risk factors because they have a higher risk at baseline.
Patients treated with NSAIDs following a first heart attack were more likely to die in the first year after the heart attack compared to patients who were not treated with NSAIDs after their first heart attack.
There is an increased risk of heart failure with NSAID use.
We will request similar updates to the existing heart attack and stroke risk information in the Drug Facts labels of OTC non-aspirin NSAIDs.
In addition, the format and language contained throughout the labels of prescription NSAIDs will be updated to reflect the newest information available about the NSAID class.

Patients and health care professionals should remain alert for heart-related side effects the entire time that NSAIDs are being taken.

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Hopefully, your doctor has given you many treatment options, so that you can manage even the most severe attacks at home (including Compazine or Phenergan anti-nausea suppositories for when you are very nauseated or vomit and Imitrex or sumatriptan injection pen for severe pain). However, many people end up in an ER, where they are usually given an injection or intravenous medications. Unfortunately, there is no standard protocol for the best way to treat an acute migraine that does not respond to oral medications. Ideally, the first step should be an infusion of magnesium, which can provide fast relief for up to 50% of patients. Some ER doctors give an injection of sumatriptan or a non-narcotic pain killer ketorolac (Toradol). Others will give a nausea drug which can also help pain such as metoclopramide (Reglan) or prochlorperazine (Compazine). An allergy medicine, diphenhydramine (Benadryl) is also a popular choice.

A study by Dr. Benjamin Friedman and his colleagues at the Albert Einstein COllege of Medicine in the Bronx compared the efficacy of intravenous Reglan combined with Benadryl and Reglan without Benadryl. This was a double-blind study, meaning that neither the doctor giving the medicine nor the patient knew what was being given. They recruited 208 patients, which is a high enough number to produce reliable results. And the results showed that Reglan without Benadryl provided as much relief as with Benadryl.

Benadryl is not a dangerous drug, but can make you drowsy, so if you can, ask the doctor not to give it to you. It is not easy to tell a doctor what to do, especially during a severe migraine attack. But if doctor is agreeable, ask for intravenous magnesium followed by either sumatriptan or ketorolac injection as well as metoclopramide for nausea.

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For years researchers have tried to find ways to block various chemicals (neurotransmitters) released during a migraine attack, including serotonin, CGRP, nitric oxide, substance P, glutamate, and other. Triptans (such as IMitrex or sumatriptan), the first “designer” drugs for migraine, which were developed over 20 years ago, bind to a very specific subtype of serotonin receptor and are very effective in stopping a migraine attack.

A very promising new type of migraine medications is being developed by at least four different companies – Alder, Amgen, Eli Lily, and Teva. These drugs are monoclonal antibodies against the CGRP molecule or the CGRP receptor. CGRP (calcitonin gene-related peptide) is widely distributed in the body and is involved in regulating blood vessel opening and in the function of the nervous system. All four companies developing these drugs recently presented the results of their phase II clinical trials and the data looks very promising. The antibody tightly binds to its target (CGRP molecule or receptor) with the effect lasting a month, or in case of the Alder drug, up to 6 months. The Alder drug is given every six months intravenously, while the other three, are given every month by an injection into the muscle.

All four drugs appear to be very effective in preventing migraine attacks when compared to a placebo injection. And fortunately, at least so far, they all look very safe. However, in phase II trials only a couple of hundred patients are treated and we need to await the results of the larger and more definitive phase III trials to confirm the safety and efficacy of this new group of medications. This means that the earliest we will see these drugs approved by the FDA is in about 3 years.

It is possible that these drugs will be effective not only for the prevention of migraines, but also for stopping an acute migraine attack.

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An opening between the left and the right side of the heart, called patent foramen ovale (PFO), is found in 25% of the general population. It has been found to be more common in people who suffer from migraines. A large PFOs can cause shortness of breath, heart failure, and strokes and they are usually closed surgically. Several companies developed a device to close this opening without open heart surgery, but rather by inserting an umbrella-like device through a vein in the groin.

The manufacturers of these devices have conducted clinical trials in the hope of preventing migraines by closing the PFO. The results so far have been mixed with some studies showing improvement in migraines and some showing no benefit. A study just presented at the annual meeting of the American Headache Society by Dr. Andrew Charles of UCLA and his colleagues reported on one such trial. This study was blinded, with 107 patients having a sham procedure (the catheter was inserted into the groin vein, but the PFO was not closed) and 123 having their PFO closed. Overall, there was a significant reduction in headache days in the closure group (-3.4 days) compared with the sham group (-2.0 days), however there was no difference in the primary efficacy endpoint of the number of patients with 50% or more reduction in migraine attacks.

A subset of patients did particularly well compared to the sham group – patients who had migraine aura with the majority of their migraine attacks. A significant reduction in migraine days was present in half of patients with aura compared with a quarter in the control group. About 11% (8 out of 74 patients) of those who had migraine with aura had complete elimination of migraine attacks, while this happened to only 1.5% (1 out of 68 patients) in the sham group with auras.

This study suggests that patients who have auras with the majority of their migraine attacks and whose migraines are difficult to control should undergo an echocardiogram to test for the possible presence of a PFO. If PFO is present, it may be reasonable to consider seeing an interventional cardiologist to close the PFO. This is a relatively safe procedure if done by an experienced doctor and that is a very important if. Pick a doctor who has done a hundred or more of these procedures.

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Several presentations at the annual meeting of the American Headache Society held in Washington DC last weekend discussed the treatment of post-concussion symptoms in children (everything below also applies to adults). Among many topics, the speakers addressed the question of aerobic exercise after the concussion. Most experts agree that starting physical exercise too early can worsen the symptoms and delay recovery. At the same time, because aerobic exercise has so many benefits for the brain, it is prudent to begin aerobic exercise 2 to 4 weeks after the concussion. The child should begin exercising for short periods of time and at low intensity. Exercise should be stopped as soon as symptoms, such as headache or dizziness worsen. Brisk walking could be the first activity to be tried. The ideal duration is about 30 minutes and when this goal is achieved, the intensity of exercise can be gradually increased.

As far as the very common cognitive problems after a concussion, the experts also agreed that complete cognitive rest is not helpful. Just like with physical exercise, it is best to begin mild activities, such as reading for pleasure, and then slowly increase the load, as tolerated.

Several scientific presentations reported that the most common type of headaches that occurs after a concussion is migraine. When these post-concussion migraines last for more than 3 months and occur on more than 15 days each month, they are considered to be chronic migraines.

The treatment of post-concussion chronic migraines is the same as the treatment of chronic migraines that occur without a concussion. These treatments may include cognitive behavioral therapy, biofeedback, magnesium and other supplements (magnesium deficiency is found in up to 50% of migraine sufferers and magnesium is depleted by trauma), various preventive medications, and Botox injections.

Although the FDA has not yet approved Botox injections for the treatment of chronic migraines in children, Botox is safer than most drugs. We know about the safety of Botox in children because it has been widely used even in very young children who suffer from cerebral palsy and are unable to walk unless their stiff leg muscles are relaxed by Botox. Botox was approved by the FDA 26 years ago and some kids have been getting injections for over 20 years and so far there have been no long-term side effects observed.

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Zolmitriptan is one of seven triptans available in the US and it comes in tablets (Zomig), orally disintegrating tablets, that is tablets that melt in your mouth (Zomig ZMT), and nasal spray (Zomig NS). The nasal spray was just approved for children 12 and older. It is available in 2.5 mg and 5 mg strength and the 2.5 mg is the starting dose, but kids are allowed to take 5 mg dose up to twice a day.

My previous post mentioned the approval of Treximet, a combination of sumatriptan (Imitrex) and naproxen (Aleve) in adolescents. However, Zomig is the only triptan in a nasal spray form (the second triptan available in a nasal spray is sumatriptan or Imitrex) approved in the US for children. The advantages of this form of drug delivery is that it tends to have faster onset of action and it can be taken when severe nausea or vomiting precludes the use of oral medications. Sumatriptan nasal spray is approved in kids in Europe, so there is no reason not to use it as well, however Zomig spray seems to be better than Imitrex spray. The amount of fluid in a single dose of Zomig is less than that in Imitrex and the spray droplets are of smaller size, leading to better retention of fluid in nasal passages and better absorption. Also, many patients complain of a very unpleasant taste with Imitrex spray, although this can be avoided by sucking on a hard candy while spraying. This will carry the saliva out of the mouth down the throat and the drug will not reach the mouth. When using nasal sprays it is important not to sniff them up your nose because this will carry the medicine into the throat rather than having it stay in the nose where it gets absorbed faster.

Since we are on the topic of nasal sprays, I should mention three other nasal sprays that can be used to treat headaches. Migranal nasal spray contains dihydroergotamine, which is one of the strongest injectable migraine medications. However it is a lot less effective in a nasal spray form. Sprix is a nasal spray of ketorolac (Toradol), a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, which is also much stronger when injected. It is also available in a tablet, but the tablet is not any stronger than aspirin or ibuprofen. The third nasal spray is Stadol NS and it contains butorphanol, a strong narcotic pain killer. It should be avoided because it is very addictive.

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A combination pill containing 10 mg of sumatriptan with 60 mg of naproxen sodium was just approved by the FDA for children aged 12 to 17. This combination in a higher dose (85 mg of sumatriptan and 500 mg of naproxen) has been available for adults for the past 7 years. This recent FDA approval allows children to take up to one adult strength tablet a day. It is good to have a smaller size tablet for kids. However, there is a big issue of cost. We don’t yet know what the pediatric strength tablet will cost, but a single tablet of the adult strength Treximet is $75. Yes, $75 for one tablet, even with a coupon you can get at GoodRx.com and $80 or more without a coupon. Very few insurance companies will pay for Treximet because you can get a generic tablet of sumatriptan (Imitrex), 100 mg for $1.50 and a tablet of naproxen, 500 mg for 7 cents. So, make-your-own Treximet will cost you $1.57. A very rare patient will tell me that they get better relief from the branded pill, which is possible because of the inactive ingredients, speed of onset and occasionally poor quality generics (I wrote about this problem in a previous post). However, such patients are very few.

Besides Treximet, we have two other triptans approved for migraines in children. Rizatriptan (Maxalt, Maxalt MLT) is approved by the FDA for children and adolescents 6 to 17 years of age and it is available in a generic form. Almotriptan (Axert) is approved in adolescents, 12 – 17 years of age, but it is available only as a branded drug ($40 a pill). In the UK, 10 mg sumatriptan nasal spray (Imitrex in the US, Imigran in the UK) was approved for adolescents, ages 12-17, who suffer from migraine and cluster headaches. In the US, we have only 5 and 20 mg nasal sprays of sumatriptan, and both are available in a generic form. Sumatriptan and zolmitriptan (Zomig, Zomig ZMT – orally disintegrating tablet, Zomig NS – nasal spray) were also tested in kids. The reason these two drugs were not approved is because the placebo response in kids tends to be very high and the active treatment was not distinguishable from placebo. This is mostly because headaches in children tend to be shorter in duration and the headache goes away on their own in a couple of hours, making it difficult to separate the active drug from placebo. However, they are probably as effective and as safe as the triptans approved in pediatric patients.

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Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) was approved by the FDA at the end of 2013 (see my earlier post) but it has not yet become available. This approval was for the treatment of acute migraine.

A new study just presented at the International Headache Congress suggests that TMS could be effective for the preventive treatment of migraines with medication overuse headache.

The study included only 28 patients and it was not a blinded study. However, these patients were severely affected and failed several other treatments. They were instructed to use the TMS device twice a day every day with an additional treatment at the time of a headache. Treatment lasted for at least 3 months, with an option to continue for another 3 months.

Of the 28 patients, 24 (86%) reported a reduction in their days of acute medication use per month, while 2 patients reported an increase in acute medication use. Nineteen patients (68%) experienced fewer migraine days per month, and 7 of the 19 had a 50% or greater reduction in migraine days. The number of patients with pain severity rated as excruciating or severe dropped from 19 at baseline to 3 at 3 months (84% reduction). Headache attack duration decreased in 15 patients, remained unchanged in 9, and increased in 4. The disability score (HIT-6) was severe at the beginning of the study in 26 of 28 participants. After 3 months, only 18 had severe disability.

The benefit was seen in patients who had migraines with and without aura.

After 3 months, five patients stopped using TMS because it was ineffective or inconvenient. Four were lost to follow-up. Of the remaining 19, 16 reported reduced days of acute medication use at 6 months, compared with baseline. Disability scores in the 19 patients who used TMS for 6 months were comparable to their scores at 3 months, suggesting that there was no additional benefit from longer-term use, but the benefit was maintained.

No side effects were reported, confirming the safety of TMS. Now we just have to wait for the company (eNeura) to release this product on the market.

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