Butterbur: The Herb That Can Prevent Migraines

Two medical organizations release updated preventive treatments for migraine headaches.

An extract of butterbur, an herb, is recommended by the Academy of Neurology and American Headache Society as a preventive treatment for migraines. Photograph courtesy of Flickr user Paul Albertella.

For the millions of people who suffer from migraines, preventive treatment is crucial. The problem is, only 3 to 13 percent of them actually use it.

Today, the Academy of Neurology and the American Headache Society published updated guidelines for preventive treatment of migraines, an extremely painful and debilitating form of headache that can last between 4 and 72 hours and cause vomiting, extreme sensitivity to light and sound, and performance impairment.

A team of experts reviewed 284 articles and studies published between June 1999 and May 2007 in order to establish over-the-counter remedies and complementary treatments that may prevent migraines. Some of the strongest evidence pointed to the herb butterbur, or Petasites, as effective for migraine prevention. The experts gave it a Level A ranking, noting that it should be offered to patients to reduce the frequency and severity of attacks.

Butterbur is an herb that has long been used to relieve pain, upset stomachs, headaches, hay fever, and more. Recent studies have found that a purified extract from the butterbur plant has been proven to reduce migraine attacks by 60 percent.

However, certain butterbur products may contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which can cause damage to the liver and lungs, and impair blood circulation. All usable products should be labeled PA-free. Users should also note that certain butterbur products can cause some serious burping issues.

Other “probably effective” treatments that made the list include histamines, which were found to reduce headache frequency from 3.8 to 0.5 after four weeks of histamine injections. Common over-the-counter drugs also labeled probably effective for migraine prevention include ibuprofen, naproxen sodium, and magnesium.

Still, migraine sufferers should see their doctor for regular follow-ups, even if these medications do not require a prescription. “People need to keep in mind that all drugs, including over-the-counter drugs and complementary treatments, can have side effects or interactions with other medications, which should be monitored,” cautioned the guidelines’ author, Stephen D. Silberstein.

For more information, visit the American Academy of Neurology’s website