One in five Australians – 4.9 million people – suffers from migraine, according to Painaustralia, and the condition is deemed to be underdiagnosed.
The pain advocacy body puts the economic cost at a whopping $35.7 billion – $14.3 billion in health system costs, $16.3 billion in productivity costs and $5.1 billion in other costs.
Despite the massive cost to the country, a Migraine in Australia Whitepaper – produced by Deloitte for pharmaceutical company Novartis – says funding for migraine research is “clearly inadequate”.
But … a new class of migraine preventative drugs is offering life-changing treatment, according to a report published in the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA) this week.
Monash Medical Centre neurologist Dr Michael Eller says the new drugs give hope to patients who have not been able to find relief from other treatments.
“I’ve got many patients who have had significant benefit from it who have been burdened from awful headaches for decades,” he said.
Dr Eller described the drugs as “revolutionary” as they specifically targeted migraines.
In a case study reported in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, a sufferer said she had experienced severe migraines almost every day after her thyroid had been removed when she was 32.
Over the next 12 years, she had systematically tried every treatment but without success.
“I tried every medication available, from the most common ones going towards the alternative treatments, and just nothing helped,” she said.
Then she tried one of the new migraine drugs, known by their scientific name, erenumab.
“It was pretty much a very quick improvement,” she said. “Within maybe two weeks, my migraines became less severe and they also gradually decreased.”
The controlled trial reported in the MJA found that about 50 per cent of patients taking erenumab experienced half as many migraine days per month as the placebo group.
Erenumab has been available in Australia since October 2018, and two more drugs – galcanezumab and fremanezumab – have been available since the end of 2019. None are listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) and the average monthly cost of treatment ranges from about $300 to $850.
The Deloitte whitepaper says a migraine is characterised by recurrent attacks of moderate to severe headache.
“Migraine pain is typically pulsating, affecting one side or area of the head. During a migraine attack, patients may experience nausea, vomiting and sensory sensitivity such as phonophobia and photophobia that significantly affects their lives,” it says.
Neurologist Dr Alexis Selby said traditional medicines used to treat migraines had been designed for other purposes.
“We have older types of antidepressant drugs which are still commonly used and often extremely effective, but will have various different side effects, as well as other things like beta blockers, anti-seizure type medications, which can for some be a very good treatment,” she said.
The new drugs have comparatively mild side effects.
“It’s really been a very good treatment, but they’re certainly not appropriate or effective for everybody,” Dr Selby said.
“It’s really important we get an understanding that there are so many different treatment options, and a huge part of the battle is getting people to see a neurologist.
“It’s a real condition and we do have real treatments which are often incredibly effective if we can find the right therapy for you.”
She stressed that non-medical therapies also played a crucial role in migraine management and treatment.
Do you or someone close to you suffer from migraines? Has it wreaked havoc with your life? Were you aware of this range of drugs?
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