Consider melatonin for migraine prevention

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This affordable, over-the-counter hormone is as effective as amitriptyline, causes fewer adverse effects, and may have a surprising added benefit.


Recommend nightly melatonin 3 mg to your patients with chronic migraines, as it appears to be as effective as amitriptyline in reducing headaches and causes fewer adverse effects.


B: Based on a single, good quality randomized controlled trial.

Gonçalves AL, Martini Ferreira A, Ribeiro RT, et al. Randomised clinical trial comparing melatonin 3 mg, amitriptyline 25 mg and placebo for migraine prevention. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 2016;87:1127-1132.1




A 32-year-old woman comes to your office for help with her recurrent migraines, which she’s had since her early 20s. She is otherwise healthy and active. She is frustrated over the frequency of her migraines and the debilitation they cause. She has tried prophylactic medications in the past, but stopped taking them because of the adverse effects. What do you recommend for treatment?

Daily preventive medication can be helpful for chronic migraine sufferers whose headaches have a significant impact on their lives and who have a goal of reducing headache frequency or severity, disability, and/or avoiding acute headache medication escalation.2 An estimated 38% of patients with migraines are appropriate candidates for prophylactic therapy, but only 3% to 13% are taking preventive medications.3

Evidence-based guidelines from the American Academy of Neurology and the American Headache Society state that antiepileptic drugs (divalproex sodium, sodium valproate, topiramate) and many beta-blockers (metoprolol, propranolol, timolol) are effective and should be recommended for migraine prevention (level A recommendation; based on ≥2 class I trials).2 Medications such as antidepressants (amitriptyline, venlafaxine) and other beta-blockers (atenolol, nadolol) are probably effective and can be considered (level B recommendation; based on one class I trial or 2 class II trials).2 However, adverse effects, such as somnolence, are listed as frequent with amitriptyline and occasional to frequent with topiramate.4

Researchers have investigated melatonin before. But a 2010 double-blind, crossover, randomized controlled trial (RCT) of 46 patients with 2 to 7 migraine attacks per month found no significant difference in reduction of headache frequency with extended-release melatonin 2 mg taken one hour before bed compared to placebo over an 8-week period.5


Melatonin tops amitriptyline in >50% improvement in headache frequency

This RCT conducted in Brazil compared the effectiveness of melatonin to amitriptyline and placebo for migraine prevention in 196 adults (ages 18-65 years) with chronic migraines.1 Eligible patients had a history of at least 3 migraine attacks or 4 migraine headache days per month. Patients were randomized to take identically-appearing melatonin 3 mg, amitriptyline 25 mg, or placebo nightly. The investigators appear to have concealed allocation adequately, and used double-blinding.

The primary outcome was the number of headache days per month, comparing baseline with the 4 weeks of treatment. Secondary endpoints included reduction in migraine intensity, duration, number of analgesics used, and percentage of patients with more than 50% reduction in migraine headache days.

An estimated 38% of patients with migraines are appropriate candidates for prophylactic therapy, but only 3% to 13% are taking preventive medications.

Compared to placebo, headache days per month were reduced in both the melatonin group (6.2 days vs 4.6 days, respectively; mean difference [MD], -1.6; 95% confidence interval [CI], -2.4 to -0.9) and the amitriptyline group (6.2 days vs 5 days, respectively; MD, -1.1; 95% CI, -1.5 to -0.7) at 12 weeks, based on intention-to-treat analysis. Mean headache intensity (0-10 pain scale) was also lower at 12 weeks in the melatonin group (4.8 vs 3.6; MD, -1.2; 95% CI, -1.6 to -0.8) and in the amitriptyline group (4.8 vs 3.5; MD, -1.3; 95% CI, -1.7 to -0.9), when compared to placebo.

Headache duration (hours/month) at 12 weeks was reduced in both groups (amitriptyline MD, -4.4 hours; 95% CI, -5.1 to -3.9; melatonin MD, -4.8 hours; 95% CI, -5.7 to -3.9), as was the number of analgesics used (amitriptyline MD, -1; 95% CI, -1.5 to -0.5; melatonin MD, -1; 95% CI, -1.4 to -0.6) when compared to placebo. There was no significant difference between the melatonin and amitriptyline groups for these outcomes.

Patients taking melatonin were more likely to have a >50% improvement in headache frequency compared to amitriptyline (54% vs 39%; number needed to treat [NNT]=7; P<.05); melatonin worked much better than placebo (54% vs 20%; NNT=3; P<.01).

Adverse events were reported more often in the amitriptyline group than in the melatonin group (46 vs 16; P<.03) with daytime sleepiness being the most frequent complaint (41% of patients in the amitriptyline group vs 18% of the melatonin group; number needed to harm [NNH]=5). There was no significant difference in adverse events between melatonin and placebo (16 vs 17; P=not significant). Melatonin resulted in weight loss (mean, -0.14 kg), whereas those taking amitriptyline gained weight (+0.97 kg; P<.01).


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