Antiepileptic drugs in the management of cluster headache and trigeminal neuralgia

Headache. 2001 Nov-Dec:41 Suppl 1:S25-32. doi: 10.1046/j.1526-4610.2001.01154-5.x.


Cluster headache and trigeminal neuralgia are relatively rare but debilitating neurologic conditions. Although they are clinically and diagnostically distinct from migraine, many of the same pharmacologic agents are used in their management. For many patients, the attacks are so frequent and severe that abortive therapy is often ineffective; therefore, chronic preventive therapy is necessary for adequate pain control. Cluster headache and trigeminal neuralgia have several distinguishing clinical features. Cluster headache is predominantly a male disorder; trigeminal neuralgia is more prevalent in women. Individuals with cluster headaches often develop their first attack before age 25; most patients with trigeminal neuralgia are between age 50 and 70. Cluster headaches are strongly associated with tobacco smoking and triggered by alcohol consumption; trigeminal neuralgia can be triggered by such stimuli as shaving and toothbrushing. Although the pain in both disorders is excruciating, cluster headache pain is episodic and unilateral, typically surrounds the eye, and lasts 15 to 180 minutes; the pain of trigeminal neuralgia lasts just seconds and is usually limited to the tissues overlying the maxillary and mandibular divisions of the trigeminal nerve. Cluster headache is unique because of its associated autonomic symptoms. Although the pathophysiology of cluster headache and trigeminal neuralgia are not completely understood, both appear to have central primary processes, and these findings have prompted investigations of the effectiveness of the newer antiepileptic drugs for cluster headache prevention and for the treatment of trigeminal neuralgia. The traditional antiepileptic drugs phenytoin and carbamazepine have been used for the treatment of trigeminal neuralgia for a number of years, and while they are effective, they can sometimes cause central nervous system effects such as drowsiness, ataxia, somnolence, and diplopia. Reports of studies in small numbers of patients or individual case studies indicate that the newer antiepileptic drugs are effective in providing pain relief for trigeminal neuralgia and cluster headache sufferers, with fewer central nervous system side effects. Divalproex has been shown to provide effective pain control and to reduce cluster headache frequency by more than half in episodic and chronic cluster headache sufferers. Topiramate demonstrated efficacy in a study of 15 patients, with a mean time to induction of cluster headache remission of 1.4 weeks (range, 1 day to 3 weeks). In the treatment of trigeminal neuralgia, gabapentin has been shown to be effective in an open-label study. When added to an existing but ineffective regimen of carbamazepine or phenytoin, lamotrigine provided improved pain relief; it also may work as monotherapy. Topiramate provided a sustained analgesic effect when administered to patients with trigeminal neuralgia. The newer antiepileptic drugs show considerable promise in the management of cluster headache and trigeminal neuralgia.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anticonvulsants / therapeutic use*
  • Cluster Headache / diagnosis
  • Cluster Headache / drug therapy*
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Humans
  • Trigeminal Neuralgia / diagnosis
  • Trigeminal Neuralgia / drug therapy*


  • Anticonvulsants