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What is a Triptan?

Triptans are a class of medications specifically designed to address the intense pain and other symptoms associated with migraines, offering hope to those who suffer from these debilitating headaches. These medications work by targeting specific receptors in the brain to alleviate migraine symptoms, providing much-needed relief for individuals experiencing severe discomfort. In this post, Haeley, our Associate Headache Clinician at the Sydney Headache and Migraine Clinic, will discuss the use of triptans in the management of headaches and migraines.


How do Triptans work?

Physiologically, triptans act on serotonin receptors in the brain, with a particular focus on the 5-HT1B and 5-HT1D receptors. These receptors play a critical role in regulating blood vessel size and neurotransmitter release. By activating these receptors, triptans induce vasoconstriction, which narrows blood vessels in the brain. This action helps to reduce the inflammation and swelling associated with migraines, ultimately relieving the throbbing headache pain that can accompany them. Additionally, triptans inhibit the release of neurotransmitters such as substance P and calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP), which transmit pain signals in the brain. By blocking the release of these neurotransmitters, triptans help to decrease the intensity of migraine pain and other associated symptoms like nausea and sensitivity to light and sound.


Triptans are a cornerstone of migraine management, offering rapid relief for many patients. One of their key advantages is their ability to provide swift relief from migraine symptoms, with many individuals experiencing improvement within an hour of taking the medication. It is crucial to take triptans as soon as possible after the onset of migraine symptoms, ideally during the early stages of an attack, as they are most effective when taken early. However, even if taken later in the migraine attack, triptans can still provide some relief, albeit with potentially reduced effectiveness.


Disadvantages of Triptans

Despite their effectiveness, triptans do have some drawbacks that need to be considered. Common side effects include dizziness, drowsiness, nausea, and muscle weakness, which can be bothersome for some individuals and may limit their use of triptans. Additionally, triptans are not suitable for everyone and may be contraindicated in certain individuals, such as those with uncontrolled high blood pressure, heart disease, or a history of strokes or mini-strokes. Furthermore, triptans can interact with other medications, such as certain antidepressants, increasing the risk of adverse reactions. Thus, the non-medicated approach used at the Sydney Headache and Migraine Clinic is often preferred over long-term use of triptans.


In summary, triptans are a commonly used class of medications for managing headaches, particularly migraines. They provide relief by targeting serotonin receptors in the brain, leading to vasoconstriction and inhibition of neurotransmitter release. Triptans are most effective when taken early in the migraine attack, and while they are generally well-tolerated, they can cause side effects and have contraindications that need to be carefully considered before use.


To learn more about effective migraine management strategies and personalised treatment options, consult with a headache clinician, such as Haeley Kan at the Sydney Headache and Migraine Clinic. With expert guidance and support, individuals can find relief from migraines and improve their overall quality of life.


Written by:

Haeley Kan
Headache Clinician