How are opioids used to treat migraines?

Donna Hill Howes, RN
Family Practitioner

Opioids are narcotic pain medications related to opium. They block pain signals to the brain. Opioids that are used to treat migraines include butorphanol, codeine (usually combined in a pill with acetaminophen or aspirin), meperidine (Demerol), and methadone (Dolophine, Methadose). They are usually prescribed only for people with severe but infrequent headaches that do not respond to other treatments. They are not recommended for regular use.

Some opioids carry a very high risk of abuse, addiction, and fatal overdose. This risk is higher in people with a history of substance or alcohol abuse and in people with psychiatric problems, such as depression. The risk of overdose is also higher for people who take extended-release or long-acting forms of the drugs. Opioids also carry a high risk of life-threatening breathing problems (respiratory depression), even when taken at recommended doses. 

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