Sugar pill beats two drugs in migraine trial for children

Up to 11 per cent between 7 and 11 years of age and 23 per cent of 15-year-olds have migraines. Photo: N Sridharan  

Neither of the two drugs used most frequently to prevent migraines in children is more effective than a sugar pill, according to a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Researchers stopped the large trial early, saying the evidence was clear even though the drugs — the antidepressant amitriptyline and the epilepsy drug topiramate — had been shown to prevent migraines in adults.

“The medication did not perform as well as we thought it would, and the placebo performed better than you would think,” said Scott Powers, lead author of the study and a director of the Headache Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

A migraine is a neurological illness characterised by pulsating headache, sometimes accompanied by nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light and noise.

It’s a common childhood condition. Up to 11 per cent of those in the age group 7-11 years and 23 per cent of 15-year-olds have migraines.

At 31 sites nationwide, 328 migraine sufferers within ages 8 to 17 were randomly assigned to take amitriptyline, topiramate or a placebo pill for 24 weeks. Patients with episodic migraines (fewer than 15 headache days a month) and chronic migraines (15 or more headache days a month) were included.

The aim was to figure out which drug was more effective at reducing the number of headache days and to gauge which one helped children to stop missing school or social activities.

As it turned out, there was no significant difference among the groups: 61 per cent of the placebo group reduced their headache days 50 per cent or more, compared with 52 per cent of the children given amitriptyline and 55 per cent of those who took topiramate. And there was no significant difference among the three groups in reducing the school days or other activities missed.

Side effects

The drugs also produced side effects in some children, such as fatigue, dry mouth, and tingling in their hands or feet. A few cases were more severe.

One child on topiramate attempted suicide. Three taking amitriptyline had mood changes; one told his mother he wanted to hurt himself, while another wrote suicide notes at school and was hospitalised.

Because of the side effects, Powers and his colleagues questioned whether the benefits of either drug outweighed its risks.

In 2014, the Food and Drug Administration approved topiramate for the prevention of migraine headaches in adolescents between 12 and 17 who had fewer than 15 headache days a month. In light of the new study, Powers said he hoped the FDA and doctors would re-examine that decision.

Other experts were not yet ready to give up on drug treatment.

“Am I now going to feel obligated to tell patients that these drugs are no better than a placebo? No,” said Dr. Eugene R. Schnitzler, a professor of neurology and pediatrics at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.

“I’ll simply say, ‘We have data in adults that it’s effective, but less convincing data in children and adolescents.'”

Even if the drugs are not effective for children overall, “that doesn’t mean for any one individual, a drug might not work,” said Dr. David Gloss, a neurologist and a methodologist for the American Academy of Neurology.

A team of physicians, including Gloss, is revising the academy’s guidelines on pediatric migraines and planning to assess nondrug approaches.

A trial published last year found that taking amitriptyline and learning coping skills in a cognitive behavioral therapy programme more effectively reduced headache days for chronic sufferers in ages between 10 and 17 than the drug given with only basic headache education.

The New York Times News Service

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Printable version | May 12, 2021 8:28:54 AM |

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