The FDA approved Botox injections for the treatment of chronic migraine headaches more than five years ago. I just discovered that in this period of time only 100,000 chronic migraine sufferers received this treatment. According to the Migraine Research Foundation, 14 million Americans suffer from chronic migraines, so less than 1% of them have received this potentially life-changing treatment.
There are several possible explanations.
1. Botox is expensive and many insurance companies make it difficult for patients to get it. They require that the patient first try 2 or 3 preventive drugs, such as a blood pressure medicine, (propranolol, atenolol, etc.), an epilepsy drug (gabapentin, Depakote, Topamax), or an antidepressant (amitriptyline, nortriptyline, Cymbalta). Patients also have to have 15 or more headache days (not all of them have to be migraines) in each of the three preceding months. If these requirements are met, the doctor has to submit a request for prior authorization. Once this prior authorization is granted, the insurer will usually send Botox to the doctor’s office. After the procedure is done, the doctor has to submit a bill to get paid for administering Botox. This bill does not always automatically get paid, even if a prior authorization was properly obtained. The insurer can ask for a copy of office notes that show that the procedure was indeed performed. All this obviously serves as a deterrent for many doctors. Some of them find that the amount of paperwork is so great and that the payment is so low and uncertain, that they actually lose money doing it.
2. There are not enough doctors trained in administering Botox. This is becoming less of a problem as more and more neurologists join large groups or hospitals where at least one of the neurologists is trained to give Botox and gets patients referred to him or her. However, doctors in solo practices or small groups without a trained injector can be reluctant to refer their patients out for the fear of losing a patient. They may suggest that this treatment is not really that effective or that it can cause serious side effects.
The majority of doctors who inject Botox are neurologists, but there are only 15,000 neurologists in the US and many specialize in the treatment of strokes, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, MS, and other conditions. This leaves only a couple of thousand who treat headache patients. Considering that there are 14 million chronic migraine sufferers, primary care doctors will hopefully begin to provide this service.
3. Chronic migraine patients are underdiagnosed. Many patients will tell the doctor that they have 2 migraines a week and will not mention that they also have a mild headache every day. The mild headaches they can live with and sometimes my patients will even call them “normal headaches”, which they don’t think are worth mentioning. Good history taking on the part of the doctor solves this problem. However, once doctors join a large group or a hospital, they are pressured to see more patients in shorter periods of time, making it difficult to obtain a thorough history.
4. Some patients are afraid of Botox because it is a poison. In fact, by weight it is the deadliest poison known to man. However, it is safer than Tylenol (acetaminophen) because it all depends on the amount and too much of almost any drug can kill you. Fifty 500 mg tablets of Tylenol kills most people by causing irreversible liver damage. Hundreds of people die every year because of an accidental Tylenol poisoning, while it is extremely rare for someone to die from Botox. Tens of millions of people have been exposed to Botox since its introduction in 1989. It is mostly young children who have gotten into trouble from Botox because the dose was not properly calculated. Kids get Botox injected into their leg muscles for spasticity due to cerebral palsy, although children with chronic migraines also receive it (the youngest child with chronic migraines I treated with Botox was 8).
In summary, if you have headaches on more than half of the days (not necessarily all migraines) and you’ve tried two or three preventive drugs (and exercise, meditation, magnesium, CoQ10, etc), try to find a doctor who will give you Botox injections. Botox is more effective and safer than preventive medications because it does not affect your liver, kidneys, brain, or any other organ.
In British Columbia, PharmaCare will not cover Botox injections for migraines. With injection fees, costs are about $1000 every 3 months.
It’s possible to get your secondary insurance to partially cover Botox, but they usually require you to ask PharmaCare every year before they’ll cover it. This involves getting your neurologist to spend time during your precious appointments to write a letter asking for a special authorization and then a few hours of additional paperwork and bureaucracy wrangling. Every year. Probably costs more in time than it would to cover the damn drug.