Practical considerations for the treatment of elderly patients with migraine

Paola Sarchielli, Maria Luisa Mancini, Paolo Calabresi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Treatment of migraine presents special problems in the elderly. Co-morbid diseases may prohibit the use of some medications. Moreover, even when these contraindications do not exist, older patients are more likely than younger ones to develop adverse events. Managing older migraine patients, therefore, necessitates particular caution, including taking into account possible pharmacological interactions associated with the greater use of drugs for concomitant diseases in the elderly. Paracetamol (acetaminophen) is the safest drug for symptomatic treatment of migraine in the elderly. Use of selective serotonin 5-HT 1B/1D receptor agonists ('triptans') is not recommended, even in the absence of cardiovascular or cerebrovascular risk, and NSAID use should be limited because of potential gastrointestinal adverse effects. Prophylactic treatments include antidepressants, β-adrenoceptor antagonists, calcium channel antagonists and antiepileptics. Selection of a drug from one of these classes should be dictated by the patient's co-morbidities. β-Adrenoceptor antagonists are appropriate in patients with hypertension but are contraindicated in those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes mellitus, heart failure and peripheral vascular disease. Use of antidepressants in low doses is, in general, well tolerated by elderly people and as effective, overall, as in young adults. This approach is preferred in patients with concomitant mood disorders. However, prostatism, glaucoma and heart disease make the use of tricyclic antidepressants more difficult. Fewer efficacy data in the elderly are available for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, which can be tried in particular cases because of their good tolerability profile. Calcium channel antagonists are contraindicated in patients with hypotension, heart failure, atrioventricular block, Parkinson's disease or depression (flunarizine), and in those taking β-adrenoceptor antagonists and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (verapamil). Antiepileptic drug use should be limited to migraine with high frequency of attacks and refractoriness to other treatments. Promising additional strategies include ACE inhibitors and angiotensin II type 1 receptor antagonists because of their effectiveness and good tolerability in patients with migraine, particularly in those with hypertension. Because of its favourable compliance and safety profile, botulinum toxin type A can be considered an alternative treatment in elderly migraine patients who have not responded to other currently available migraine prophylactic agents. Pharmacological treatment of migraine poses special problems in regard to both symptomatic and prophylactic treatment. Contraindications to triptan use, adverse effects of NSAIDs, and unwanted reactions to some antiemetics reduce the list of drugs available for the treatment of migraine attacks in elderly patients. The choice of prophylactic treatment (β-adrenoceptor antagonists, calcium channel antagonists, antiepileptics, and more recently, some antihypertensive drugs) is influenced by co-morbidities and should be directed at those drugs that are believed to have fewer adverse effects and a better safety profile. Unfortunately, for most of these drugs, efficacy studies are lacking in the elderly.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)461-489
Number of pages29
JournalDrugs and Aging
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 2006

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pharmacology
  • Geriatrics and Gerontology


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