Conference Coverage

Recommended headache treatments get mixed reception in EDs


AT AHS 2022

In line with recommendations, emergency departments dramatically reduced their use of opioids as treatments for headache over a recent 11-year period, a new study finds. But the use of diphenhydramine (Benadryl) more than doubled even though guidelines caution against it, while recommended drugs such triptans and corticosteroids were rarely prescribed.

From 2007-2010 to 2015-2018, researchers reported at the annual meeting of the American Headache Society, a database reveals that opioid use in headache cases at EDs fell from 54% to 28%. Diphenhydramine use grew from 17% to 36% (both (P < .001). The percentage of cases in which EDs sought neuroimaging stayed stable at about 36%, a number that the study authors described as too high.

Seonkyeong Yang, MS, of the University of Florida School of Pharmacy in Gainesville.

Seonkyeong Yang

“Future studies are warranted to identify strategies to promote evidence-based treatments for headaches and appropriate outpatient referrals for follow-up and to reduce unnecessary neuroimaging orders in EDs,” lead author Seonkyeong Yang, MS, of the University of Florida, Gainesville, said in an interview.

Ms. Yang said researchers launched the study to update previous data in light of changes in opioid prescribing and the 2016 release of American Headache Society guidelines for the treatment of acute migraines in the ED setting. The research was published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine.

Headache treatment in the ED

For the study, researchers analyzed data from the U.S. National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care survey and focused on adults who had a primary discharge diagnosis of headache.

For the 2015-2018 period, per weighted numbers, the survey encompassed 10.2 million headaches mostly among people younger than 50 (71%), female (73%), and White (73%). Migraines made up 33% of the total, with nonspecified headache accounting for almost all of the remainder (63%).

In 68% of cases, two or more medications were administered in the ED. This number rose to 83% among patients with migraine. But most of the time (54%), no medications were prescribed at discharge.

Among recommended medications, antiemetics – the most commonly used class of drugs in these patients – were prescribed 59% of the time in both 2007-2010 and 2015-2018 (P = .88). Usage of acetaminophens and NSAIDs grew from 37% to 52% over that time period.

Despite recommendations, the use of ergot alkaloids/triptans and corticosteroids remained low (less than 6% of the time).

“Several factors may contribute to the underuse of triptans in EDs, including their cardiovascular contraindications, ED physicians’ unfamiliarity with injectable triptans, higher costs, and treatment failures with triptans before ED visits,” Ms. Yang said. “We observed an upward trend in dexamethasone use over time. However, it was still underutilized. [The corticosteroid was only used 3.5% of the time from 2015-2018.] The 2016 AHS guideline strongly recommends dexamethasone use to prevent migraine recurrence after ED discharge. Identifying patients at high risk of headache recurrence for dexamethasone use may further improve patient outcomes of acute headache management in ED settings.”

Ms. Yang also reported that the use of diphenhydramine grew even though it’s not recommended. “Diphenhydramine is more likely to be used to prevent akathisia, a side effect of some antiemetics [that is, dopamine receptor antagonists] in headache-related ED visits,” she said. “However, the 2016 AHS guideline recommends against diphenhydramine use due to its limited efficacy in relieving headache pain. In addition, there is also conflicting evidence on diphenhydramine’s efficacy in preventing akathisia when coadministered with antiemetics. Diphenhydramine use requires caution due to its sedative effect and abuse potential.”

As for medication combinations, Ms. Yang said “the most broadly used therapy among headache-related ED visits in 2007-2010 was an opioid with an antiemetic (21.0%), which decreased to 6.6% in 2015-2018. Meanwhile, the combined use of acetaminophen/NSAIDs with antiemetic and diphenhydramine increased substantially from 3.9% to 15.7% and became the most prevalent therapy in 2015-2018. Opioid monotherapy use gradually decreased during the study period [from 8.8% to 1.9%].”


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