Opioids in headache treatment. Is there a role?

D K Ziegler
Neurologic Clinics 1997, 15 (1): 199-207
There may be a population of patients subject to frequent headache and in whom optimal analgesic effect is obtained only by frequent but controlled use of opiate drugs and in whom adverse drug effects are minimal. It is emphasized again that the reality is that there are currently a large amount of opioids being prescribed for headache patients because of patients' demands. One of the major considerations for physicians prescribing such treatment is familiarity with the legal guidelines. The federal law requires physicians to register if they are to maintain or detoxify with opioids addicts defined as "any individual who habitually uses any narcotic drug so as to endanger the public morals, health, safety, or welfare, or is so far addicted to the use of narcotic drugs as to have lost the power of self-control with reference to his addiction." A subsequent regulation, however, stated that the law was not intended to impose any limitation on prescription of narcotics for intractable pain. There are also many different state regulations covering, for example, limitations on amounts to be prescribed and reporting of patients who are habitual narcotic users. Obviously, headache patients who request liberal amounts of opioids must be screened. There has been considerable recent effort to provide guidelines regarding which patients with nonmalignant pain might be poor candidates for opioid treatment by reason of both probable treatment failure and risk of drug overuse. Many of these guidelines are not relevant to headache patients in whom pain is rarely continuous and rarely demands scheduled analgesia, as is often the case with pain of other types. There is general agreement that any previous history of any type of substance abuse is an important indicator of danger of recurrence of such behavior. Evaluation of psychological state and personality structure is of great importance. The more evidence of emotional disturbance, the greater the danger both of poor results and of drug abuse. In the chronic daily headache population, treatment failure has been found to correlate with abnormalities on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI). It is possible that formal psychological testing prior to the prescription of opioid drugs will prove of value in identifying those headache patients at greatest risk for drug abuse. The importance of making opioid treatment part of a multifaceted pain program has been emphasized. Portenoy emphasizes the need for (1) careful discussion with the patient (and often family) of the potential side effects of the drugs, and (2) scrupulous monitoring of adherence to the appropriate dosage and maintenance of prescription by a single physician. The more psychological disturbance evidenced by the patient, the more the risk with failure of drug treatment and of drug abuse. Finally, the analgesic needs of the patient with frequent migraine are different from those of the patient with tension-type headache. Migraine infrequently occurs more than two or three times a week for any period and usually responds to ergotamine, dihydroergotamine, sumatriptan, or a phenothiazine. Addition of codeine or oxycodone for the occasional intractable attack may be needed. When demands in a migraine patient for opioids in amounts greater than 10 to 15 tablets per month occur, there is obvious cause for concern. The opioid agonist-antagonist butorphanol, now available in nasal inhalation form, is alleged to have low abuse potential because it tends to produce dysphoria (an unpleasant emotional state) rather than the euphoria of other opioids. It is therefore unscheduled. The drug, however, does have abuse potential, and the limits needed to be placed on its use are still uncertain. Markley recently recommended a restriction to not more than two bottles (30 treatments) per month. The population with frequent tension-type headaches presents the major problem. Large numbers of these patients use drugs--often in combination

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