Medications for Severe Headaches and Other Symptoms of an Emergency
Every 10 seconds, someone in the United States develops a migraine headache so severe they go to the hospital emergency room (ER), according to the Migraine Research Foundation. Given the pain and risks associated with these episodes (e.g., uncontrolled vomiting), ER doctors often opt for migraine treatments that can be administered via injection or IV, so they can have a quick effect.Emergency treatment for migraine depends on a patient’s specific symptoms and overall health and health history. While this overview of emergency treatment of these headaches will give you an idea of the typical approaches used in the ER, keep in mind that your care may differ slightly from these standard protocols.
When to Seek Emergency Care for a Migraine
If you deal with migraines, it’s helpful to know that there are solutions if they ever get so bad as to warrant emergency care. But knowing when to seek that level of medical attention is important.If you would describe your pain as your worst migraine attack (or headache) ever, you should consider heading to the emergency department of the nearest hospital, advises the National Headache Foundation (NHF).
If your headache is accompanied by any of the following, a trip to the hospital is recommended, according to the NHF:
- Vision loss
- Uncontrollable vomiting
- Head pain that lasts more than 72 hours with fewer than four solid hours of relief
- Symptoms that are unusual for you or frightening
- Loss of consciousness
Treatment Approaches in the ER
The treatment you might receive in a hospital emergency department for a migraine headache will be based, for the most part, on your symptoms and personal health history: In other words, there’s no one-size-fits-all fix.
Emergency Department 101
However, there are standards and recommendations. For one thing, medications given in the ER for migraine headache typically are administered parenterally—in some way other than by mouth, including by subcutaneous injection (a shot just under the skin), intramuscularly (a deeper injection into the muscle tissue), and intravenously (via an IV tube).These methods allow medications to work more quickly in the body, and they are more effective for someone who’s experiencing so much nausea and/or vomiting that keeping down a pill is almost impossible. Many people also are given fluids via IV to prevent dehydration.In 2016, the American Headache Society (AHS) put together a panel of experts to review clinical trials of the many diverse medications used in emergency settings to treat migraines in adults to determine which truly work best and are safest. The panel considered studies of 28 different medications to come up with recommendations for the acute treatment of migraines in adults.
Based on the results of 68 clinical trials, the AHS panel determined that adults who visit the ER for migraine pain and other symptoms should be offered one of these three medications to treat pain and other symptoms, particularly nausea and vomiting:
- Metoclopramide, an antiemetic (anti-nausea) medication that blocks dopamine receptors in the brain to relieve nausea and vomiting as well as pain
- Prochlorperazine, an anti-psychotic
- Sumatriptan, a selective serotonin receptor agonist (SSRI) that constricts blood vessels in the brain and blocks certain substances that cause pain to relieve headache, nausea, and other migraine symptoms
The panel also determined that adults with migraine should receive a dose of dexamethasone, a steroid that lowers the risk that a migraine will recur.
If for some reason the first-line medications are not appropriate, the panel found that the following alternatives may be offered:
- Acetaminophen, an analgesic
- Acetylsalicylic acid, aspirin
- Chlorpromazine, an anti-psychotic
- Ketoprofen, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID)
- Diclofenac, an NSAID
- Droperidol, an anti-dopamine drug that relieves nausea
- Haloperidol, an anti-psychotic
- Ketorolac, an NSAID
- Valproate, an anti-convulsant that doesn’t relieve migraines but may help to prevent a recurrence of oneMedications for Treating Migraines
Medications That Are Not Recommended
Among medications that have commonly been used in the ER to treat migraine headaches are a handful that the panel suggest not be given because they don’t work as well as others or for other reasons. Hydromorphone and morphine, for example, are opioids—a class of drug associated with addiction.
On the AHS list of drugs that are best avoided for treating migraine in the ER are:
- Diphenhydramine, an antihistamine
- Hydromorphone, an opioid
- Lidocaine, an analgesic
- Morphine, an opioid
- Octreotide, a medication often given to cancer patients to control diarrhea
Caution for Pregnant Women
Some medications used in the emergency treatment of migraine headaches are known to cross the placenta of women who are expecting and cause possible harm to a developing baby. These include:
- NSAIDs: These are not considered safe for women in the third trimester of pregnancy, at which time these drugs can interfere with the healthy development of a baby’s lungs, cause low levels of amniotic fluid, or slow or stop labor during childbirth.
- Dihydroergotamine, a type of medication known as an ergot alkaloid: This drug, which also goes by the brand names D.H.E. 45 and Migranal, is on a long list of medications cited by the AHS panel as having too little available information to recommend or not recommend for pregnant women.
- Opioids, including oxycodone and morphine
- Valproate, the anti-seizure drug that sometimes is given to prevent recurrent migrainesUsing Migraine Medications During Pregnancy
A Word From Verywell
Treating a migraine headache that’s severe enough to require emergency care can be tricky. Many medications have been used to relieve pain, nausea, vomiting, and other symptoms—some more successfully than others. And despite the AHS recommendations of the most effective and safest protocols for managing an acute migraine in an emergency setting, the treatment a patient receives in one hospital ER may differ from that offered by another.The most important thing to remember if you go to the ER for a migraine (or any other emergency) is that you need to be an advocate for yourself or make sure someone is with you who can fill that role. This means being forthright and thorough when answering questions about your current health and any medications you take, including over-the-counter products, supplements, and recreational drugs. Your honesty will help the doctors caring for you hone in on the migraine medications most likely to relieve your pain as quickly as possible.