Migraine and Headache Medications
Anti-depressants, Triptans, and Opioids for Migraine and Headache Relief
When it comes to treating migraines and headaches, the medications you take—or the ones your doctor will prescribe you—will depend on your symptoms as well as how frequently you experience migraines and headaches.
For example, you may need a daily prescription medication to relieve chronic migraines, or you may need to take a medication to prevent migraines and headaches. To learn more about preventing migraines and headaches with medication, read our article on preventive medications for migraines and headaches.
Before taking any new medications to treat your headaches and/or migraines, talk to your doctor. Some medications may interact with other medications—even supplements—you’re taking.
More In-depth Migraine and Headache Treatment Articles
- Preventive Medications: Stopping Migraines Before They Start
- Alternative Treatments for Headaches and Migraines
- Exercise when You Have Chronic Migraines: Is It Possible?
Also, it’s important to note that using medications to treat your headache symptoms can lead to rebound headaches, which means that you can have a headache for treating your headache.
Cluster Headache Medications
Cluster headache pain typically comes on—and goes away—suddenly, so over-the-counter medications, such as aspirin or ibuprofen, aren’t effective at treating your headache symptoms. However, there are some fast-acting medications to relieve the severity of pain and shorten the duration of the headache.
The cluster headache medications below—all part of the triptan family of medications—require a prescription from your doctor. These medications are available as an injection, nasal spray, and tablet. Your doctor will let you know how much medication to take as well as how often to take it.
Also, if you have certain types of heart disease or uncontrolled high blood pressure, sumatriptan injections and sumatriptan nasal spray may not be right for you, but your doctor will let you know if these medications are an option.
- Sumatriptan injections: These medications are the most effective medications for cluster headaches.1
The injections often work within minutes, but you may need 2 or 3 injections a day.1
Your doctor will show you how to inject yourself with this medication as soon as you recognize cluster headache symptoms. Imitrex is an example of a commonly prescribed sumatriptan injection.
- Sumatriptan nasal spray: As with sumatriptan injections, sumatriptan nasal spray works to reduce your cluster headache symptoms. Although it’s not as fast-acting or effective as sumatriptan injections, the nasal spray is convenient and easy to use.1
You’ll typically need 2 or 3 nasal spray a day to effectively treat cluster headaches.1 You can use a combination of both injections and nasal spray to treat your cluster headaches, but your doctor will let you know what treatments he or she recommends.
Zolmitriptan (Zomig) is an example of a sumatriptan nasal spray.
- Oral triptans: The pill form of triptan works in the same way as the injections and nasal spray do. Oral triptans are helpful for cluster headaches that last longer and/or cluster headaches that are moderate.1
Naratriptan (Amerge) is an example of an oral triptan.
Tension Headache Medications
There is a wide variety of over-the-counter medications for tension headaches. Examples of over-the-counter medications you can use to treat your tension headache symptoms are ibuprofen and acetaminophen. However, these medications may only relieve your symptoms briefly.
You may need a prescription medication for more effective pain relief. Below are some prescription medications used to treat tension headaches. Unlike cluster headache medications, the medications below aren’t used to treat acute headache pain. Instead, they’re used to treat long-lasting pain.
- Anti-depressants: Certain anti-depressants, such as selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and tricyclic anti-depressants (TCAs) can decrease the amount of tension headaches you have. Citalopram (Celexa) is an example of an SSRI, and amitriptyline (Elavil) is an example of a TCA.
- Muscle relaxants: These medications work by relieving muscle tension and stiffness. Tizanidine (Zanaflex) is an example of a muscle relaxant used to treat tension headaches.
- Opioids: Also known as narcotics, opioids pack a powerful punch when it comes to treating your tension headache pain. Morphine is an example of an opioid. Your doctor will monitor you carefully if you’re prescribed an opioid.
Over-the-counter medications, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and acetaminophen can help reduce migraine-related pain, but you may find that you need something stronger to treat your migraines—especially if you have chronic migraines.
Your doctor may prescribe you one of the medications below:
- Triptans: As with cluster headaches, triptans can work to treat your migraine-related pain and other symptoms. You can take them as a tablet, nasal spray, or injection. Examples of triptans commonly used for migraines are sumatriptan (Imitrex) and rizatriptan (Maxalt).
- Dihydroergotamine: This medication, which can be used in 3 ways—intravenously, as an injection, and as a nasal spray—can relieve your migraine-related pain, but if you have heart disease or high blood pressure, you won’t be able to take it. Migranal is an example of dihydroergotamine.
- Opioids: Your doctor may prescribe you with an opioid if you’ve tried other migraine medications and they don’t work. Your doctor will watch you closely if you’re prescribed an opioid, such as hydrocodone.
Whether your headaches and/or migraines are acute or chronic—it’s important to remember to carry your headache and/or migraine medication with you at all times. It’s better to be prepared when head pain strikes.