Butalbital in the Treatment of Headache: History, Pharmacology, and Efficacy


Address all correspondence to Dr. Stephen D. Silberstein, Jefferson Headache Center, Gibbon Building, Suite 8130, 111 South 11th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107.


Analgesics containing butalbital compounded with aspirin, acetaminophen, and/or caffeine are widely used for the treatment of migraine and tension-type headache. The butalbital-containing compounds are efficacious in placebo-controlled trials among patients with episodic tension-type headaches. Despite their frequent clinical use for migraine, they have not been studied in placebo-controlled trials among patients with migraine. Barbiturates can produce intoxication, hangover, tolerance, dependence, and toxicity. Butalbital can result in intoxication that is clinically indistinguishable from that produced by alcohol. Butalbital-containing analgesics can produce drug-induced headache in addition to tolerance and dependence. Higher doses can produce withdrawal syndromes after discontinuation. Butalbital-containing analgesics may be effective as backup medications or when other medications are ineffective or cannot be used. Because of concerns about overuse, medication-overuse headache, and withdrawal, their use should be limited and carefully monitored.