Headache from religious fast? Researchers may have a cure

Thu Jan 14, 2010 8:40pm EST
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By Ivan Oransky

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Every year millions of Jews fast on their holiest day, Yom Kippur, and millions of Muslims fast for the month of Ramadan -- and every year, as many as 40 percent of those fasting develop serious headaches. But given the prohibitions against taking anything by mouth, there's little these observers can do until the fast ends - nightly for Muslims, and after 25 hours for Jews.

Now, a team of researchers in Israel, reporting in the journal Headache, think they have a solution -- a cousin of Vioxx (rofecoxib), the drug Merck pulled from the U.S. market in September 2004 because it increased the risks of heart attacks and other serious complications.

The drug, etoricoxib (Arcoxia), also made by Merck, is approved in several European countries, as well as Israel, but was refused FDA approval in the United States in 2007 because it works the same way Vioxx does.

Dr. Michael Drescher, of Hartford Hospital, Connecticut, and colleagues at two hospitals in Israel recruited more than 200 volunteers before Yom Kippur in October 2008.

Just before the holiday, half of them took etoricoxib, and half were given inactive placebo pills. Neither the volunteers nor the researchers knew which was which until after the study. Among the 195 study participants who responded to a survey after the holiday, about 36 percent who took etoricoxib developed headaches, compared to about 68 percent who took the placebo.

Those who took etoricoxib also had less severe headaches, and they had an easier time fasting.

Yom Kippur headache is a well documented phenomenon but the causes are unclear. Doctors have suspected withdrawal from caffeine, nicotine, oversleeping, and dehydration.