Using Triptans to Treat Migraine Headaches

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For the many millions of people who suffer from migraines finding an effective treatment has been difficult and has taken a considerable time. Even after years of research there is no miracle cure, but a new class of drugs known as triptans are as close to a miracle cure as we have come for these often intensely painful headaches that can strike at any time.

The triptans are a form of drug which is chemically similar to serotonin, which is itself a neurotransmitter that is believed to play a part in causing migraines. As with many drug treatments, success often comes from creating a compound which is chemically similar to a naturally occurring chemical in the body and using this to boost levels in the body at times when symptoms appear.  In this case triptans attach themselves to receptors where the body’s natural biochemical would normally be found, but behavior slightly differently to alleviate symptoms. Technically triptans are in a class of drugs known as 5-HT1B/1D agonists.

Although these new drugs have been shown to be effective in many cases of migraine there are some studies which suggest that they are more effective for migraine sufferers who lack skin sensitivity. For those people who do experience skin sensitivity during an attack triptans can still be effective, but they should be taken as soon as possible after the onset of a migraine and preferably within no more than about 20 minutes after the appearance of symptoms.

In many cases migraine sufferers experience what is known as an ‘aura’ prior to the onset of their headache and this is not only the warning sign of an approaching headache but also the cue to start treatment. Although not all sufferers will experience an aura for those that do it varies widely but is essentially a visual disturbance consisting of such things as seeing spots or flashing lights.

Triptan drugs were first introduced during the 1990s and there are now various different types of these drugs available under a variety of different commercial names. One very common treatment is sumatriptan, which is sold under the brand name of Imitrex. This first generation of drugs proved very effective but still did not quite do the trick as well as doctors would have wished and so today we see a second generation of more effective triptans. These include zolmitriptan (sold as Zomig) and rizatriptan (sold as Maxalt).

These second generation drugs are often referred to as ‘aborters’ or ‘interrupters’ because they are designed to stop a migraine in its early stages and before it builds into the intense and pulsating pain which is so familiar to migraine sufferers. Second generation triptans are preferred by many sufferers because they do not have to be taken before the arrival of the headache, which can be difficult to predict as symptoms are not always very pronounced. In addition, they are effective for a longer period of time, which is also important for those people whose migraines can last for days rather than hours. Triptans can also help to relieve or eliminate other migraine symptoms such as nausea and vomiting.

One other problem which is often present with traditional medicines taken in pill form is that they require you to have water on hand to take the pill and then take time to work as the pill is broken down and absorbed into the bloodstream. Many of the new triptans however, such as rizatriptan (marketed as Maxalt), are available in a wafer form which simply dissolves on the tongue and drugs are now also available in the form of nasal sprays which are very fast acting.

As with any medication triptans do carry a range of side effects and you should consult your physician before using any of these drugs to treat your migraine.