Mechanism of Action of OnabotulinumtoxinA in Chronic Migraine: A Narrative Review

Rami Burstein, Andrew M. Blumenfeld, Stephen D. Silberstein, Aubrey Manack Adams, Mitchell F. Brin

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

40 Scopus citations


Objective: To review the literature on the mechanism of action of onabotulinumtoxinA in chronic migraine. Background: OnabotulinumtoxinA is a chronic migraine preventive treatment that significantly reduces headache frequency. The traditional mechanism described for onabotulinumtoxinA – reducing muscle contractions – is insufficient to explain its efficacy in migraine, which is primarily a sensory neurological disease. Methods: A narrative literature review on the mechanism of action of onabotulinumtoxinA in chronic migraine. Results: Following injection into tissues, onabotulinumtoxinA inhibits soluble N-ethylmaleimide-sensitive fusion attachment protein receptor (SNARE)-mediated vesicle trafficking by cleaving one of its essential proteins, soluble N-ethylmaleimide-sensitive fusion attachment protein (SNAP-25), which occurs in both motor and sensory nerves. OnabotulinumtoxinA inhibits regulated exocytosis of motor and sensory neurochemicals and proteins, as well as membrane insertion of peripheral receptors that convey pain from the periphery to the brain, because both processes are SNARE dependent. OnabotulinumtoxinA can decrease exocytosis of pro-inflammatory and excitatory neurotransmitters and neuropeptides such as substance P, calcitonin gene-related peptide, and glutamate from primary afferent fibers that transmit nociceptive pain and participate in the development of peripheral and central sensitization. OnabotulinumtoxinA also decreases the insertion of pain-sensitive ion channels such as transient receptor potential cation channel subfamily V member 1 (TRPV1) into the membranes of nociceptive neurons; this is likely enhanced in the sensitized neuron. For chronic migraine prevention, onabotulinumtoxinA is injected into 31-39 sites in 7 muscles of the head and neck. Sensory nerve endings of neurons whose cell bodies are located in trigeminal and cervical ganglia are distributed throughout the injected muscles, and are overactive in people with migraine. Through inhibition of these sensory nerve endings, onabotulinumtoxinA reduces the number of pain signals that reach the brain and consequently prevents activation and sensitization of central neurons postulated to be involved in migraine chronification. Conclusion: OnabotulinumtoxinA likely acts via sensory mechanisms to treat chronic migraine.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1259-1272
Number of pages14
Issue number7
StatePublished - 1 Jul 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • botulinum
  • headache
  • migraine
  • trigeminal system


Dive into the research topics of 'Mechanism of Action of OnabotulinumtoxinA in Chronic Migraine: A Narrative Review'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this