Chronic Migraine: An Update on Physiology, Imaging, and the Mechanism of Action of Two Available Pharmacologic Therapies

Headache. 2017 Jan;57(1):109-125. doi: 10.1111/head.12999. Epub 2016 Dec 2.


Several lines of research support the hypothesis that migraine is a spectrum of illness, with clinical symptoms that vary along a continuum from episodic migraine to chronic migraine. Physiologic changes may result in episodic migraine evolving into chronic migraine over months to years in susceptible individuals. With chronification, headache frequency increases, becoming more disabling and less responsive to therapy. Neurophysiologic and functional imaging research has reported that chronic migraine may be associated with severity-specific metabolic, functional, and structural abnormalities in the brainstem. Without longitudinal studies, it is unclear whether these changes may represent a continuum of individual progression and/or are reversible. Furthermore, chronic migraine is associated with larger impairments in cortical processing of sensory stimuli when compared with episodic migraine, possibly caused by more pronounced cortical hyperexcitability. Progressive changes in nociceptive thresholds and subsequent central sensitization due to recurrent migraine attacks in vulnerable individuals contribute to the chronic migraine state. This may result in changes to baseline neurologic function between headache attacks, evident in both electrophysiological and functional imaging research. Patients experiencing migraine chronification may report increased non-headache pain, fatigue, psychiatric disorders (eg, depression, anxiety), gastrointestinal complaints, and other somatic conditions associated with their long-term experience with migraine pain. Recent research provides a foundation for differentiating episodic and chronic migraine based on neurophysiologic and neuroimaging tools. In this literature review, we consider these findings in the context of models designed to explain the physiology and progression of episodic migraine into chronic migraine, and consider treatment of chronic migraine in susceptible individuals. Advances in pharmacotherapy provide treatment options for chronic migraine. Of the currently available treatment options, only onabotulinumtoxinA and topiramate have received regulatory approval and have demonstrated efficacy in patients with chronic migraine, although the exact mechanisms of action are not fully elucidated.

Keywords: chronic migraine; episodic migraine; literature review; onabotulinumtoxinA; pathophysiology; topiramate.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Migraine Disorders / diagnostic imaging
  • Migraine Disorders / drug therapy*
  • Migraine Disorders / physiopathology*