Standing on the corner, minding my own business in the ER

Propofol for Migraine Headache



A 24 yo male with chronic migraines, presents to your ED with status migrainosus for 72 hours.  He has tried his home therapy of ibuprofen, tylenol and a triptan.  After throwing in some iv fluids, prochlorperazine and dexamethasone, his headache remains a 10/10.  He is followed by neurology, has had a recent head MRI, and this feels like his usual migraine.

What traditional options are we left with for treating this headache?





"Rock, Hard Place" Road Sign with dramatic clouds and sky.

So this kinda sucks.

Fortunately, this patient presented five shifts into my new role as ER attending physician, and wearing my freshly minted scrubs, I am presented with the perfect opportunity to try some novel migraine therapies.

 propofol-460x315 0409-1162-01_32-3227_1

The fantastic folks over at Academic Life in EM (ALiEM) recently covered the literature on the use of propofol for migraine headache, and I will direct you there for the background/evidence.  It is a brief post, so check it out before reading further.

To summarize, small aliquots of propofol (10-30 mg) every 3-5 minutes have some potential benefit for refractory migraineurs.

After trying this for my patient, I was left with many questions, notably:

1)Is the time commitment feasible or reasonable?

The average time of sedation in this paper was 30 minutes, with the stop point being one hour.  In the second paper discussed, VAS pain scores were measured from 0-45 minutes.

One hour is a long time to take with a trauma patient you are resuscitating, let alone a patient with a headache.  Moreover, that does not include set-up, consenting the patient, monitoring post-procedure, etc. which adds to the procedure time.  In my case, I treated this like any other procedural sedation, mostly because this isn’t something ever done where I work, and I’m the new guy.

2)What is the ideal depth of sedation?

In the papers on this subject, light sedation is the target, and patients are generally speaking throughout the procedure.  In Krusz’s paper, a few of the patients developed drowsiness or transient slurred speech.  In my case, a bit of drowsiness but no more than that.

One of the key arguments for propofol use is to get the patient some sleep and break the pain cycle.  This raises the question of “Why not give slightly larger doses in order to actually get the patient to sleep for 1-2 minutes”? If we are setting up for a procedural sedation anyway, let’s actually put them to sleep briefly and break the pain cycle.  It seems somewhat counter-productive to say “we need to get them sleep” but have them awake enough to talk to us for the entire procedure.

3)Is this something we actually want to start promoting?

Regardless of the time commitment and feasibility of use, the most concerning element of using propofol for migraine may be the long term consequences.  Will the possibility of a 30 minute to 1 hour procedural sedation lead to patient’s expecting this when they come in with a bad migraine?  The recurrent migraine population also tends to overlap with the frequent flyers, and the repercussions of unmet expectations will lead to decreased satisfaction for both patients and staff.  What happens when a few people in the ER group are providing this service while others are not?  There is always practice variation, and we are unlikely to see widespread adoption of this therapy in the near future.

Back to the case.

I stopped at 30 minutes and 120 mg of propofol (about 1.5 mg/kg), and achieved a pain reduction from 10/10 to 5/10.  I feel that the pain was steadily decreasing and by one hour (and 240 mg of propofol), she’d probably have been near 0/10.  But that’s speculation.  The patient was very appreciative, and felt well enough to be discharged, but I still question the role of this procedure.

Bottom Line
The use of propofol for migraine headache has potential, but I question its practicality and whether it is something we want to advertise.

Overall, paraspinal and greater occipital nerve blocks may have a greater role as novel migraine therapies compared with propofol, primarily because of feasibility in practice.  We’ll discuss these techniques further in part 2.

If you have experience with propofolizing migraines, please comment, I would love to hear your thoughts.



Thanks to Nadim Lalani (@ermentor) for peer-reviewing this post.


  1. Nice post, Chris. I’ve wondered about the practicality of propofol in a busy ED to treat migraines. 30 min seems like an awful lot of time to devote to the headache patient. Thx for sharing your experience. I would also be interested in hearing the experience of others.


    • Thanks Elisha,

      I wonder if it is more practical and effective to just try a larger dose one time than repeated small doses. Just put them off to sleep for 1-2 minutes like an electrical cardioversion and then wake them up. Would be an interesting study to compare single large dose vs. repeated short doses. I’m monitoring the patient like a procedural sedation anyway, so why not sedate them?


      • You raise some good points about starting something you may regret later. One additional point, I have only done this procedure once, but I took a slightly different approach. I used a BIS monitor (Bispectral Index) to monitor patient’s level of consciousness, ran a propofol infusion titrated to achieve a BIS of 53 or less, and let the patient sleep for 20 minutes. Upon awakening, HA symptoms were gone (totally). I was not able to follow up, so I don’t know how effective it was long term. I am wondering if this treatment might be better applied to those HA sufferers who have tried multiple treatments for chronic HA without resolution. DJ

  2. jo meyer says:

    When I have a 3 day migraine w/ nausea, tear jerking pain, light sensitivity, and sound sensitivity so bad that the slightest sound so horribly painful that other people just thinking I’m exaggerating or fabricating, I would love to be put to sleep for hours. My migraines keep me from sleeping. They wake me up if I do manage to fall asleep, or if they start in the middle of the night. Why so short a period of time to get relief?

  3. Have used propofol many times. Found Silberstein’s protocol to work most consistently. Do it in pac u as can’t get ED Mds to take the time to do it. Hospital admin shut me down due to anesthesia dept irritated by it and hosp requires er md or anesthesia to do it. So will try to set up as out pt. Can be helpful if done monthly x 3 to break chronic migraine. However any bad migraine pt will hug you if you do it as clears migraine to 0.

    • Hey David,

      Thanks for commenting. I could definitely see this more as something to be done in PACU or a dedicated outpatient clinic as opposed to in the ER. I’m sure it helps, it’s more the logistics of doing it that is the challenge.

      What total dose of propofol would you say you’re using on average?


  4. I actually have had this protocol done. I had 30ml every three minutes for twelve minutes. I was awake the entire time and it is the only treatment that cleared my entire migraine and all of my nausea. It did take about 45 minutes of me waiting after the injections for all of the pain and nausea to go away. Normally it would take a week of dhe for me to clear that 9/10 headache and even then it wouldn’t have gone down to zero. I was actually the hospitals experiment and I wanted to hug whomever cleared me for the treatment. Truely the only time I have ever walked out with a zero, I also felt so alert, it was amazing!!! Just a paitents point of view for you!!


  1. […] use of propofol to treat migraine has been previously discussed here at SOCMOB.  Today an interesting paper came to my attention thanks to Reuben Strayer over […]

  2. […] we have discussed the use of propofol for migraine headache (part 1, part 2).  In this post, we’ll look at another headache treatment that can be added to your […]

  3. […] nontraditional headache therapy. You might recall his previous posts about propofol for migraines (here and here). This week he gets into paraspinous nerve blocks. […]

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