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Keywords:

  • aspirin;
  • migraine;
  • tension-type headache;
  • stratified care;
  • stepped care

Objectives.— (1) To establish whether pre-treatment headache intensity in migraine or episodic tension-type headache (ETTH) predicts success or failure of treatment with aspirin; and (2) to reflect, accordingly, on the place of aspirin in the management of these disorders.

Background.— Stepped care in migraine management uses symptomatic treatments as first-line, reserving triptans for those in whom this proves ineffective. Stratified care chooses between symptomatic therapy and triptans as first-line on an individual basis according to perceived illness severity. We questioned the 2 assumptions underpinning stratified care in migraine that greater illness severity: (1) reflects greater need; and (2) is a risk factor for failure of symptomatic treatment but not of triptans.

Methods.— With regard to the first assumption, we developed a rhetorical argument that need for treatment is underpinned by expectation of benefit, not by illness severity. To address the second, we reviewed individual patient data from 6 clinical trials of aspirin 1000 mg in migraine (N = 2079; 1165 moderate headache, 914 severe) and one of aspirin 500 and 1000 mg in ETTH (N = 325; 180 moderate, 145 severe), relating outcome to pre-treatment headache intensity.

Results.— In migraine, for headache relief at 2 hours, a small (4.7%) and non-significant risk difference (RD) in therapeutic gain favored moderate pain; for pain freedom at 2 hours, therapeutic gains were almost identical (RD: −0.2%). In ETTH, for headache relief at 2 hours, RDs for both aspirin 500 mg (−4.2%) and aspirin 1000 mg (−9.7%) favored severe pain, although neither significantly; for pain freedom at 2 hours, RDs (−14.2 and −3.6) again favored severe pain.

Conclusion.— In neither migraine nor ETTH does pre-treatment headache intensity predict success or failure of aspirin. This is not an arguable basis for stratified care in migraine. In both disorders, aspirin is first-line treatment regardless of headache intensity.