A cheap, century-old drug in most Americans' medicine cabinets -- aspirin -- may come to the rescue for people suffering from migraines, a new study finds.
While there are effective prescription medications, many migraine patients in the United States don't have access to them due to limited access to doctors or good insurance, or high insurance co-pays, said researchers at Florida Atlantic University, in Boca Raton.
Aspirin might often be a viable option for these patients, said the research team, who reviewed 13 studies of migraine treatment involving more than 4,200 patients. The investigators also looked at data on the prevention of recurrent migraine in tens of thousands of patients.
The results suggest that giving a high dose of aspirin -- 900 to 1,300 milligrams (mg) -- when migraine symptoms set in is an effective and safe treatment for acute migraine.
There's also evidence that daily aspirin doses of 81 to 325 mg may be an effective and safe treatment for prevention of recurrent migraine, the team said. The standard "low-dose" aspirin pill, taken by millions of Americans to help lower heart risks, contains 81 mg.
The bottom line: "Our review supports the use of high-dose aspirin to treat acute migraine as well as low-dose daily aspirin to prevent recurrent attacks," senior author Dr. Charles Hennekens, professor and senior academic advisor at the university's College of Medicine, said in a school news release.
According to review first author Bianca Biglione, a second-year medical student, "Migraine headaches are among the most common and potentially debilitating disorders encountered by primary health care providers."
Biglione added that, "in fact, about one in 10 primary care patients present with headache, and three out of four are migraines. Aspirin is readily available without a prescription, is inexpensive, and based on our review, was shown to be effective in many migraine patients when compared with alternative more expensive therapies."
About 36 million Americans suffer from migraines, the researchers noted.
Dr. Noah Rosen directs Northwell Health's Headache Center in Great Neck, N.Y. Reading over the new findings he noted that "aspirin has been in continual use for headaches since its introduction during the industrial revolution of the late 19th century. Clearly, the part that it contributes to pain relief is quite significant and should be considered for primary treatment in an appropriate population."
But the benefits of taking the drug regularly to prevent headaches need to be balanced against potential risks, especially the risk of bleeding, Rosen said.
"The cost benefit [of aspirin] is a huge component and out-of-pocket expense is quite low," Rosen said. "But the risk of bleeding with daily use needs to be considered."
The findings were published online Nov. 8 in the American Journal of Medicine.
The American Academy of Family Physicians has more on migraine.