A general introduction to the use of medicines in treating migraine


There are a huge range of medications available to treat migraine. It is useful to have some background information to help you make informed choices about which drug may be best for you.

There is no standard treatment for migraine, so the choice of medication should always be made on an individual basis.

Whilst drugs may be necessary to treat your attack, an important factor in the overall management of migraine is finding out what may be causing it and other ways you can manage it.

How drugs work

Most drugs act in one of the following ways:

  • replacing substances in the body which you lack
  • destroying organisms such as bacteria which have invaded the body
  • changing the way cells function.

The drugs used in migraine mostly fall into the last category.

Understanding how drugs are classified

Drugs are classified in the following way:

  • the group name: according to their chemical similarity, their use or the way they work
  • the generic name: the name of the basic active ingredient e.g. aspirin
  • the brand name: the name chosen by the manufacturer e.g. Anadin.

It is useful to be able to identify drugs by their generic names, especially with Over-The-Counter (OTC) preparations (as opposed to a Prescription-Only-Medicine (POM)). This will give you a clearer idea of what you are choosing.

Different drug companies produce aspirin (for example) under different brand names. By knowing the generic name you may be able to:

  • select a cheaper drug which is just as effective for you
  • stop you duplicating and taking more than one preparation with the same active ingredient
  • save money which is useful if you are coping with a long-term condition.

Brand names differ from country to country, but the generic name is usually the same (except in the USA), however this is currently under review.

Finding the right migraine drug for you

There are two groups of drugs for treating migraine:

Before taking any drug treatment

It is always important to read the patient information sheet supplied with the drug. This is important for a number of reasons:

  • some drugs cannot be taken if you have other medical conditions or are taking certain medications
  • some drugs can cause side effects which, although mild, are worth knowing about so you can inform your GP if you experience them
  • some drugs interact with other drugs or foods or alcohol. This interaction can increase the drug’s effectiveness. Caffeine for example is sometimes added to improve the effectiveness of pain relief. Some interactions can be harmful and can reduce the efficiency of the drug. Some herbal remedies can also interact in this way so it is important to inform your GP of everything you are taking to help your migraine.

The combination of drugs

To get the best out of your medication you should always aim to take the right drug, in the right amounts, at the right time.

There is now substantial evidence that you need to take your medicine at the first sign of an attack, as soon as you start having symptoms.

The combination and method by which drugs are taken can make a difference to the time it takes for them to be absorbed into your system and to produce an effect. For example, analgesics (pain killers) taken in soluble form are absorbed more quickly. This can be a crucial factor in migraine, because when an attack takes hold the digestive system slows down. This could mean that drugs taken at the wrong time may not be properly absorbed and so will not be as effective.

Taking medications

Some people with migraine experience vomiting and find it difficult to take medication by mouth. There are various ways that drugs can be taken, including:

  • being swallowed
  • held under the tongue
  • held between teeth and cheek
  • inhaled
  • taken via the rectum (back passage) through suppositories
  • by injection
  • through the skin in patches.

Taking control

By keeping a record about all aspects of your migraine you be able to find out what works best for you. This may be a change in your lifestyle and / or the use of drugs. It is helpful to keep a record on as many aspects of your daily life as possible to see what may be a factor in triggering a migraine attack. This could include what and when you eat, exercise and patterns of sleep. Using this information combined with a record of the severity of the migraines you should be able to understand what may cause your migraine, the signals to look out for, what drugs work for you and when is the best time to take them.

Keeping a record of the drugs you are taking

With any drug treatment you should keep a record of the drugs you are taking. This will give you an idea about the type of drugs that work best for you. You should keep a record of the following:

  • generic name
  • date started
  • date finished
  • daily dosage taken
  • effectiveness
  • side effects (if any)
  • comments

You should also include any vitamins, herbal products, tonics or supplements, inhalers, creams or ointments that you are using.

Medication-overuse headache

Medication-overuse headache is one of a group of headaches that come under the umbrella term of chronic daily headache.

For many people, painkillers are a safe and effective way of treating headache or other pain.

If you have regular migraine you will most likely experience an attack once or twice a month. Sometimes an additional less severe headache may develop or the migraine attacks may become more frequent.

The pain and discomfort you are feeling every day means that you will be increasing your dosage of painkilling medications due to the development of tolerance (when your body becomes used to the drug so it stops being as effective.) This can then lead you into a process where the drugs are actually making your headaches worse and more frequent. This process is called ‘rebound phenomenon’.

It is vital that you seek medical advice when changing your medication in any way

And you should only withdraw acute medications under medical supervision. This can help exclude any other underlying causes of the headache and help if you need to start taking a headache preventive medication as soon as you have withdrawn from your acute medication.

Drugs and pregnancy

You should be very cautious about taking drugs while pregnant or breast-feeding. Fortunately, many women’s migraine attacks improve in pregnancy, especially after the first three months. You should seek medical advice if you are pregnant whilst taking any medication.

Children and over 65s

Very little scientific evidence has been gathered from children and those who are over 65 with migraine. This may mean that a drug normally prescribed for migraine may not be licensed for use with this group of people. Therefore, a child or person over 65 maybe prescribed a drug from the GP on a ‘named patient ‘basis. This means that the GP will follow a set of guidelines when prescribing the drug. The GP will make a decision as to the appropriateness of the medication for the individual patient based on medical evidence. As the patient information leaflet does not apply to these groups it is important to raise any questions or issues. The GP should give a clear account of any risks and benefits. If there is any thing you don’t understand you should always discuss this further with your GP.


Drugs and new treatments for migraine are changing all the time.  If you are on long term medication you should ensure that your treatment is regularly reviewed by your doctor.


  • Silberstein, SD Lipton, RB Goadsby, PJ Smith, RT. Headache in Primary Care. Oxford: Isis Medical Media, 1999.
  • Dowson, A.J. Migraine and Other Headaches Your Questions Answered.  Edinburgh: Churchill.
  • Fontebasso, Manuela  Migraine and Other Headaches, Answers at Your Fingertips.  Class Publishing, 2007.
  • The Migraine Trust, Hot Topics in Headache: London: 2002.

Further information

For information about the specific medications available for the treatment of migraine see:

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