What are the advances in the management of cluster headache?

Cluster headaches are nasty, excruciatingly severe, headaches. They are not called suicide headaches without good reason. Cluster headaches are typically one-sided, localised around the orbit. The eye on the affected side classically turns red and waters. The nostril follows suit by either running or blocking up. The episodes last between 45 minutes to 3 hours during which the hapless victims pace up and down, feeling like smashing their heads against a concrete wall. Relief is short-lasting because the headache cycle repeats itself several times a day, for weeks and months on end. People with episodic cluster headaches may go several months without headaches, but those with the chronic form are not afforded this luxury.

Lego splitting headache. Matt Brown on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/londonmatt/15191073177
Lego splitting headache. Matt Brown on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/londonmatt/15191073177

Treatment of cluster headache is typically three-pronged: acute treatment with triptansintermediate prevention with oral steroids; and prevention with verapamil. OK, I over simplify. Each of these strategies has 2nd, 3rd, and 4th line options. Verapamil, the cornerstone of treatment, comes with significant risks to the heart. And in extreme cases, invasive measures are called upon to save the day.

By Hansjorn - το :Αρχείο:Poseidon sculpture Copenhagen 2005.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
By Hansjorn – το :Αρχείο:Poseidon sculpture Copenhagen 2005.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Unfortunately all these treatments fail miserably more often than we like to admit. Even invasive treatments are not always successful in cluster headaches. Neurologists and patients alike are therefore always on the lookout for developments which will improve the understanding and management of cluster headaches. And, thankfully, there are a few.

A. Abnormal tyrosine metabolism and cluster headache

By No machine-readable author provided. Benjah-bmm27 assumed (based on copyright claims). - No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., Public Domain, Link
By No machine-readable author provided. Benjah-bmm27 assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., Public Domain, Link

The sad fact about cluster headache is, nobody knows what causes it. We know it is due to some malfunction of the autonomic nervous system, and to the trigeminal, or fifth, cranial nerve. This is why it is called a trigeminal autonomic cephalalgia. We know that it favours men who smoke. Beyond this we are rather clueless. It is therefore with high hopes that I read about abnormal tyrosine metabolism in chronic cluster headache, in the journal Cephalalgia. The authors report that people with cluster headaches have high levels of the products of tyrosine metabolism in their blood, such as dopamine, noradrenaline, and tyramine. If this turns out to be confirmed, it may open the way to the development of newer and more effective treatments for this painful condition.

B. Heart monitoring on verapamil

https://pixabay.com/en/pulse-trace-healthcare-medicine-163708/
https://pixabay.com/en/pulse-trace-healthcare-medicine-163708/

The heart is at risk whenever people are put on verapamil. This is because it may induce abnormal and dangerous heart rhythms. It is therefore important to check the electrocardiogram (ECG) of people on verapamil. Guidelines suggest checking the ECG before starting, 10 days after starting, and before each dose increment. It was therefore disconcerting that a recent study, published in the journal Neurology, found that 40% of people on verapamil never had any form of heart monitoring. The paper, titled electrocardiographic abnormalities in patients with cluster headache on verapamil therapy, is an audit of >200 people with cluster headaches on high dose verapamil. In those who had cardiac monitoring, the authors found ECG abnormalities in more than 50%, some very significant and life threatening. A similar finding was reported in an older study published in the Journal of Headache and Pain, titled cardiac safety in cluster headache patients using the very high dose of verapamil (≥720 mg/day). Worrying! Time to take ECG monitoring more seriously in people on verapamil. 

C. New preventative drug options

By Stomac - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0 fr, Link
By StomacOwn work, CC BY-SA 2.0 fr, Link

Besides verapamil, there are many other options for cluster headache prevention. The list is quite long, and this is the case whenever we are uncertain of what else really works. That is why I was relieved to see a recent guideline on treatment of cluster headaches touting new evidence to guide neurologists. Published in the journal Headache, it is titled Treatment of Cluster Headache: The American Headache Society Evidence-Based Guidelines. This guideline establishes that lithium is effective in preventing cluster headache, but valproate is probably ineffective. More importantly, the guidelines introduce new effective preventative agents such as civamide nasal spray, melatonin, and warfarin. For transitional prevention, occipital nerve injection comes through with glowing tributes. Progress, surely!

D. Neurostimulation for cluster headache

By C. Clark - NOAA Photo Library (direct), NOAA Central Library; OAR/ERL/National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL), Image ID: nssl0010, Public Domain, Link
By C. Clark – NOAA Photo Library (direct), NOAA Central Library; OAR/ERL/National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL), Image ID: nssl0010, Public Domain, Link

It is no longer surprising to find neurostimulation cropping up in the treatment of any neurological disorder. And cluster headache is no exception. The most effective agent, according to the latest guidelines, is sphenopalatine ganglion stimulation. It now ranks very high in the acute treatment of cluster headache, even if less effective than the good old, conventional acute treatments which are subcutaneous sumatriptan, intransal zolmitriptan, and 100% oxygen. Neurostimulation is also likely to play a future preventative role in cluster headaches, and the candidates here are invasive and non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation. We are waiting with bated breaths!

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For more on vagus nerve stimulation, you may check out my previous post titled Vagus nerve stimulation: from neurology and beyond!

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How is migraine research soothing the pain of neurology?

Migraine is a very common medical disorder. 15% of the world’s population have migraine, and 2% have chronic migraine. Most migranuers never need to see a neurologist because they have learnt how to manage their headaches. Neurologists are called in only when the usual treatments fail, often a euphemism for ‘inadequate doses and duration of treatment’.

Migraine. Quinn Dumbrowski on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/quinnanya/3820597553/in/photostream/
Migraine. Quinn Dumbrowski on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/quinnanya/3820597553/in/photostream/

Many people with difficult to control migraine however really have just that…difficult to control migraine. And it is the most avid neurologist who doesn’t silently sigh and grunt at referrals which say the patient has tried every migraine treatment, to no avail. And with good reason: the journey for people with chronic migraine is hardly ever smooth-sailing.

By User:S. JähnichenBrain_bulbar_region.svg: Image:Brain human sagittal section.svg by Patrick J. Lynch; Image:Brain bulbar region.PNG by DO11.10; present image by Fvasconcellos. - Brain_bulbar_region.svg, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6049291
By User:S. JähnichenBrain_bulbar_region.svg: Image:Brain human sagittal section.svg by Patrick J. Lynch; Image:Brain bulbar region.PNG by DO11.10; present image by Fvasconcellos. – Brain_bulbar_region.svg, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6049291

Why does migraine remain such a pain, and what hope is there to relieve the headache for patients and their neurologists? Here are 8 prospective candidates jostling to soothe the pain.

 

1. The hypoxia hypothesis for migraine triggers

There are probably as many migraine triggers as there are migraine hypotheses. Some of the triggers are curious, as discussed in my previous blog Migraine and its strange and surprising associations. Some researchers think the common link to migraine triggers is low oxygen or hypoxia. Writing in the prestigious journal Brain, they report on Migraine induced by hypoxia: an MRI spectroscopy and angiography study. Sorry, the full paper is locked to non-subscribers, but the abstract is unequivocal: hypoxia induces migraine-like attacks. And the accompanying editorial is agog with the prospects this study opens up with its headline, Hypoxia, a turning point in migraine pathogenesis? Who doesn’t love turning points, especially as the previous turning points can then be conveniently forgotten?

2. Migraine with cranial autonomic symptoms-clarified

Alison Smith on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/polygrams/232755351/in/photostream/
Alison Smith on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/polygrams/232755351/in/photostream/

Migraine with unilateral cranial autonomic symptoms is a new construct for most jobbing neurologists (OK I may just be speaking for myself here). Unilateral cranial autonomic symptoms (UAS) refer to one-sided symptoms such as reddening of the eye, blockage or running of the nose, a droopy eyelid, and a small pupil. These features are however classically seen in conditions called trigeminal autonomic cephalalgias (TACS), the main one being cluster headache.

Neurologists often see people with classical migraine but who, in addition, have UAS. The cognitive dissonance this causes the neurologist is relieved by making a diagnosis of cluster migraine. It is therefore important to know that unilateral cranial autonomic symptoms are common in migraine. The authors studied >750 migraine sufferers who also had UAS, and report that it is a severe, one-sided headache. Worse still, it goes on for more than the 72 hours which headache experts have ‘specified’ as the maximum duration for migraine. Naughty, naughty. Hopefully this study will put the final nail in the coffin of cluster migraine-it is Migraine with UAS from now on.

3. Persistent migraine aura or visual snow?

By Googleaseerch at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3359664
By Googleaseerch at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3359664

I admit I didn’t know persistent migraine aura (PMA) even existed before now. It is migraine aura lasting more than a week, and it has two subtypes-persistent primary visual disturbance (PPVD) and typical aura (TA). Digging deeper, I found that PMA could easily be confused with something called visual snow. Another new one for me. An article in Brain titled ‘Visual snow’ – a disorder distinct from persistent migraine aura makes the differences clear. With its co-author no less than the headache authority Peter Goadsby, go on and read all about it-its open access after all. For a simplified read, try this piece in About Health titled Why Visual Snow Syndrome is Not a Migraine Variant. Another small step to making the right diagnosis.

4. Monoclonal antibodies for migraine

monoclonal-antibody-services.jpg. 元永利 on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/linsc/4628425031/in/dateposted/
monoclonal-antibody-services.jpg. 元永利 on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/linsc/4628425031/in/dateposted/

Neurologists have a long list of interventions for migraine. The treatments range from Triptans to Topiramate, from Propranolol to Pizotifen. But the long list of interventions is no comfort for the equally long list of dissatisfied chronic migraine sufferers. Perhaps what we need are newer and better drugs. And monoclonal antibodies are in the frontline here. Take TEV-48125 and AMG 334  both reported in Lancet Neurology. These are monoclonal antibodies against the calcitonin gene receptor peptide (CGRP) receptor. The articles are classical illustrations of bench-to-bedside neurology, treatment following where the hypothesis leads. The hypothesis in this case stipulates that the CGRP system is central to the pathology in migraine, and CGRP may be a migraine biomarker. TEV-48125 and AMG 334 are entering phase 3 trial stages. And we can’t wait, what with both treatments having a unique 4-weekly subcutaneous injection regime! AMG 334, also known as erenumab, has passed phase 3 trials with good results.

5. Statins and Vitamin D: new tricks for old dogs

Statins are very old dogs in medicine, and their classical trick is to lower cholesterol levels. They are however very adaptive, these statins. They have edged into secondary stroke prevention, and they are now trying to muscle into migraine prevention. But for migraine they are planning a double act with Vitamin D. The cat was let out of the bag by Annals of Neurology in an article titled Simvastatin and vitamin D for migraine prevention: A randomized, controlled trial. There were only 57 study subjects but the results are encouraging; >25% of the study subjects reported a >50% reduction in migraine days; only 3% of those not on the magic combination showed this type of improvement. Note here that neurologists never promise you 100% reduction in your migraine days. Clever, clever.

6. Memantine-another old dog

Another old dog looking for new tricks is Memantine. This is a drug which usually gets its accolades in the fields of dementia and eye movement disorders. It is however not getting the appreciation it thinks it rightly deserves, and it is seeking a wider audience. And is there a wider audience than in the migraine arena? Memantine made its grand migraine debut through the journal Headache in an article titled  Memantine for Prophylactic Treatment of Migraine Without Aura. It may turn out to be a damp squid because the researchers only compared it to placebo. But guess its unique selling point… its potential safety in pregnancy. We have to wait and see what the migraine arena masters think of this.

7. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS):old tricks for a new dog 

Away with old dogs, and welcome back more new dogs. One is transcranial electrical stimulation (TMS) which now has the blessing of the UK National Institute of Clinical and Health Excellence (NICE) for migraine treatment and prevention. See my previous blog, Are magnets transforming neurological practice, for more on TMS.

8. Peripheral nerve stimulation

Another new dog is reported in Neurology with the self-explanatory title: Migraine prevention with a supraorbital transcutaneous stimulator. Nerve stimulation is of course an old trick in migraine, but the supraorbital nerve is a new target. This article from Pain Physician gives a detailed review of peripheral nerve stimulation and migraine.

 

Migraine Aura Kaleidoscope. Joana Roja on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/cats_mom/2988669345/in/photostream/
Migraine Aura Kaleidoscope. Joana Roja on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/cats_mom/2988669345/in/photostream/

 

Migraine remains challenging to neurologists and distressing for their patients. Perhaps we can now dispense hope along with prescriptions.

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