Episodic and chronic migraine headache: breaking down barriers to optimal treatment and prevention

Headache. 2015 Mar;55 Suppl 2:103-22; quiz 123-6. doi: 10.1111/head.12505_2.


Migraine is a common disabling primary headache disorder that affects an estimated 36 million Americans. Migraine headaches often occur over many years or over an individual's lifetime. By definition, episodic migraine is characterized by headaches that occur on fewer than 15 days per month. According to the recent International Classification of Headache Disorders (third revision) beta diagnostic criteria, chronic migraine is defined as "headaches on at least 15 days per month for at least 3 months, with the features of migraine on at least 8 days per month." However, diagnostic criteria distinguishing episodic from chronic migraine continue to evolve. Persons with episodic migraine can remit, not change, or progress to high-frequency episodic or chronic migraine over time. Chronic migraine is associated with a substantially greater personal and societal burden, more frequent comorbidities, and possibly with persistent and progressive brain abnormalities. Many patients are poorly responsive to, or noncompliant with, conventional preventive therapies. The primary goals of migraine treatment include relieving pain, restoring function, and reducing headache frequency; an additional goal may be preventing progression to chronic migraine. Although all migraineurs require abortive treatment, and all patients with chronic migraine require preventive treatment, there are no definitive guidelines delineating which persons with episodic migraine would benefit from preventive therapy. Five US Food and Drug Association strategies are approved for preventing episodic migraine, but only injections with onabotulinumtoxinA are approved for preventing chronic migraine. Identifying persons who require migraine prophylaxis and selecting and initiating the most appropriate treatment strategy may prevent progression from episodic to chronic migraine and alleviate the pain and suffering associated with frequent migraine.

Keywords: chronic migraine; diagnosis; episodic migraine; iontophoretic transdermal system; onabotulinumtoxinA injection; treatment.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acetylcholine Release Inhibitors / therapeutic use*
  • Botulinum Toxins, Type A / therapeutic use*
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Disease Progression
  • Humans
  • Migraine Disorders / diagnosis
  • Migraine Disorders / drug therapy*
  • Migraine Disorders / epidemiology
  • Migraine Disorders / prevention & control*
  • Serotonin Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Severity of Illness Index


  • Acetylcholine Release Inhibitors
  • Serotonin Agents
  • Botulinum Toxins, Type A