Overview of Prescription Migraine Treatments

Presctiption NSAIDs, Triptans, and Other Migraine Pain Relievers

Sometimes Your Migraines Warrant a Prescription Medication.
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Most migraine sufferers will try an over-the-counter medication first, but if the attack persists, they may need a prescription migraine medication.

Non-steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs)

Many NSAIDs are available without a prescription, but there are some that can be prescribed by your health care provider. NSAIDs fall into two categories: COX-1 and COX-2 inhibitors. Each block the activities of chemicals involved in inflammation and have similar side effect profiles, except COX-2 inhibitors , are believed to be gentler on the stomach.

Examples of the COX-1 inhibitors include diclofenac (Voltaren), meloxicam (Mobic), and nabumetone (Relafen). An example of a COX-2 inhibitor is celecoxib (Celebrex).

Common side effects of NSAIDs include gastrointestinal problems such as nausea, vomiting, and stomach pain, ulcers,  and bleeding -- although celebrex may avoid this. NSAIDs can also cause stomach ulcers and gastrointestinal bleeding. NSAIDs also have the potential to cause heart attack and stroke.

Narcotic Pain Medications

Narcotics can be used for a wide variety of painful conditions, and in some circumstances, they may be necessary to treat a migraine when it hits. Because addiction to pain medications is common, caution should be used when using them for a long period of time. Your health care practitioner will likely discuss his or her concerns about narcotics before issuing a prescription for the first time. Narcotics combined with other pain medications, such as acetaminophen, are used frequently.

Examples of these combinations include Darvocet, Vicodin, and Percocet. Nausea and/or vomiting, dizziness, drowsiness, and constipation are all common side effects of narcotic pain medications.


Ergotamine and its derivatives (such as dihydroergotamine, or DHE) have historically been used in treating headaches, although they have fallen out of favor in recent years.

Medication overuse headaches (MOH) occur frequently after treatment with ergots. Other problems associated with the ergots are increasing headache frequency, overdose, and problems with prophylactic, or preventative migraine medications. If your health care provider recommends ergots as a treatment for your headaches, be sure to use them as needed, avoiding chronic use.

5-HT Receptor Agonists (“Triptans”)

Triptans are a group of medications that are widely used and effective in treating migraine headaches. They are usually reserved for moderate to severe migraines, or mild to moderate migraines that cannot be treated effectively with NSAIDs or other analgesic medications. There are generally few side effects, but triptans should be avoided in patients with ischemic vascular conditions (such as cardiac disease or stroke), uncontrolled hypertension, peripheral vascular disease, hemiplegic migraine, or basilar migraine. Examples of the triptans include sumatriptan (Imitrex), naratriptan (Amerge), rizatriptan (Maxalt), and zolmitriptan (Zomig).

Barbiturate Combinations

Combination products containing barbiturates, caffeine, and acetaminophen (e.g., Fioricet) have long been used in treating headaches.

In addition to the analgesic properties of acetaminophen, the barbiturate component can cause sedation, increasing the effect of the medication. There are some of these combinations that add a narcotic such as codeine for an even greater pain-relieving effect. Barbiturate combinations are also notorious for causing MOH, especially after chronic use, so stopping their use suddenly is ill-advised. Side effects include drowsiness, dizziness, nausea and vomiting, and stomach pain.

Bottom Line

There are a number of different prescription migraine therapies. They each have their own side effect profile and may or may not be compatible with your medical history.

As with all treatments for migraines, be sure to discuss questions and concerns you have with your health care provider.


Auckerman, G, et al. Management of the acute migraine headache. Am Fam Physician. 2002 Dec 1;66(11):2123-30.

DeMaagd, George. Migraine headaches: the pharmacist and the role of OTC medications. Pharmacy Times. March 2007.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (July 9th 2015). FDA Drug Safety Communication: FDA strengthens warning that non-aspirin nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NsAIDs) can cause heart attacks or strokes. 

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Medication Guide for Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs). 

DISCLAIMER: The information in this site is for educational purposes only. It should not be used as a substitute for personal care by a licensed physician. Please see your doctor for diagnosis and treatment of any concerning symptoms or medical condition.

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