30th Anniversary

Headache before the revolution: A clinician looks back


Headache treatment before the early 1990s was marked by decades of improvisation with mostly unapproved agents, followed by an explosion of scientific interest and new treatments developed specifically for migraine.

For practicing neurologists today, headache is one subspecialty in which options and opportunities abound. But this is largely thanks to the sea change that occurred 30 years ago.

In an interview, Alan M. Rapoport, MD, editor-in-chief of Neurology Reviews, past president of the International Headache Society and clinical professor of neurology at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine in Los Angeles, recalled what it was like to treat patients before and after triptan medications came onto the market.

Alan M. Rapoport, MD, is a clinial professor of neurology at UCLA and the editor-in-chief of Neurology Reviews.

Dr. Alan M. Rapoport

After the first of these anti-migraine agents, sumatriptan, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in late December 1992, headache specialists found themselves with a powerful, approved treatment that validated their commitment to solving the disorder, and helped put to rest a persistent but mistaken notion that migraine was a psychiatric condition affecting young women.

But in the 1970s and 1980s, “there wasn’t great science explaining the pathophysiology of common primary headaches like tension-type headache, cluster headache, and migraine,” Dr. Rapoport recalled. “There is often comorbid depression and anxiety with migraine, and sometimes more serious psychiatric disease, but it doesn’t mean migraine is caused by psychological issues. Now we see it clearly as a disease of the brain, but it took years of investigation to prove that.”

The early years

Dr. Rapoport’s journey with headache began in 1972, when he joined a private neurology practice in Stamford and Greenwich, Conn. Neurologists were frowned upon then for having too much interest in headache, he said. There was poor remuneration for doctors treating headache patients, who were hard to properly diagnose and effectively care for. Few medications could effectively stop a migraine attack or reliably reduce the frequency of headaches or the disability they caused.

On weekends Dr. Rapoport covered emergency departments and ICUs at three hospitals, where standard treatment for a migraine attack was injectable opiates. Not only did this treatment aggravate nausea, a common migraine symptom, “but it did not stop the migraine process.” Once the pain relief wore off, patients woke up with the same headache, Dr. Rapoport recalled. “The other drug that was available was ergotamine tartrate” – a fungal alkaloid used since medieval times to treat headache – “given sublingually. It helped the headache slightly but increased the nausea. DHE, or dihydroergotamine, was available only by injection and not used very much.”

DHE, a semi-synthetic molecule based on ergotamine, had FDA approval for migraine, but was complicated to administer. Like the opioids, it provoked vomiting when given intravenously, in patients already suffering migraine-induced nausea. But Dr. Rapoport, along with some of his colleagues, felt that there was a role for DHE for the most severe subtypes of patients, those with long histories of frequent migraines.

“We put people in the hospital and we gave them intravenous DHE. Eventually I got the idea to give it intramuscularly or subcutaneously in the emergency room or my office. When you give it that way, it doesn’t work as quickly but has fewer side effects.” Dr. Rapoport designed a cocktail by coadministering promethazine for nausea, and eventually added a steroid, dexamethasone. The triple shots worked on most patients experiencing severe daily or near-daily migraine attacks, Dr. Rapoport saw, and he began administering the drug combination at The New England Center for Headache in Stamford and Greenwich, Conn., which he opened with Dr. Fred D. Sheftell in 1979.

“The triple shots really worked,” Dr. Rapoport recalled. “There was no need to keep patients in the office or emergency room for intravenous therapy. The patients never called to complain or came back the next day,” he said, as often occurred with opioid treatment.

Dr. Rapoport had learned early in his residency, in the late 1960s, from Dr. David R. Coddon, a neurologist at Mount Sinai hospital in New York, that a tricyclic antidepressant, imipramine, could be helpful in some patients with frequent migraine attacks. As evidence trickled in that other antidepressants, beta-blockers, and antiepileptic drugs might have preventive properties, Dr. Rapoport and others prescribed them for certain patients. But of all the drugs in the headache specialists’ repertoire, few were approved for either treatment or prevention. “And this continued until the triptans,” Dr. Rapoport said.


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