Migraine headaches are a neurologic disorder characterized by attacks of moderate to severe throbbing headache that are typically unilateral, exacerbated by physical activity, and associated with phonophobia, photophobia, nausea, and vomiting. In the USA, the overall age-adjusted prevalence of migraine in female and male adults is 22.3% and 10.8%, respectively.
Migraine is a disabling disease that ranks as the 8th most burdensome disease in the world and the 4th most in women. The overarching hypothesis of migraine pathophysiology describes migraine as a disorder of the pain modulating system, caused by disruptions of the normal neural networks of the head. The activation of these vascular networks results in meningeal vasodilation and inflammation, which is perceived as head pain. The primary goals of acute migraine therapy are to reduce attack duration and severity. Current evidence-based therapies for acute migraine attacks include acetaminophen, four nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), seven triptans, NSAID-triptan combinations, dihydroergotamine, non-opioid combination analgesics, and several anti-emetics. Over-the-counter medications are an important component of migraine therapy and are considered a first-line therapy for most migraineurs. These medications, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin, have shown strong efficacy when used as first-line treatments for mild-to-moderate migraine attacks. The lower cost of over-the-counter medications compared with prescription medications also makes them a preferred therapy for some patients. In addition to their efficacy and lower cost, over-the-counter medications generally have fewer and less severe adverse effects, have more favorable routes of administration (oral vs. subcutaneous injection), and reduced abuse potential. The purpose of this review is to provide a comprehensive evidence-based update of over-the-counter pharmacologic options for chronic migraines.