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Cephalalgia. 2011 May;31(7):851-60. doi: 10.1177/0333102411402367. Epub 2011 Mar 28.

Pathophysiology of medication overuse headache: insights and hypotheses from preclinical studies.

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  • 1University of New England, USA.



Medication overuse headache (MOH) is a clinical concern in the management of migraine headache. MOH arises from the frequent use of medications used for the treatment of a primary headache. Medications that can cause MOH include opioid analgesics as well as formulations designed for the treatment of migraine, such as triptans, ergot alkaloids, or drug combinations that include caffeine and barbiturates.


Gathering evidence indicates that migraine patients are more susceptible to development of MOH, and that prolonged use of these medications increases the prognosis for development of chronic migraine, leading to the suggestion that similar underlying mechanisms may drive both migraine headache and MOH. In this review, we examine the link between several mechanisms that have been linked to migraine headache and a potential role in MOH. For example, cortical spreading depression (CSD), associated with migraine development, is increased in frequency with prolonged use of topiramate or paracetamol.


Increased CGRP levels in the blood have been linked to migraine and elevated CGRP can be casued by prolonged sumatriptan exposure. Possible mechanisms that may be common to both migraine and MOH include increased endogenous facilitation of pain and/or diminished diminished endogenous pain inhibition. Neuroanatomical pathways mediating these effects are examined.

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