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Drugs for Headaches: Are You Making Your Headache Pain Worse?


When your head is pounding you look for relief, fast, which is why millions of Americans reach for over-the-counter and prescription medications to get rid of their headache pain.


Do you take medications for headaches two to three times a week? It could be the cause of your chronic headache pain.

When used on occasion, this can be an effective strategy. But if you’re using medication more than two to three times a week, for migraines or other headaches, you could actually be making your headache pain worse.

In fact, if you’re struggling with chronic, daily headache pain, there’s a good chance your painkillers are to blame. These medications are actually responsible for 50-86 percent of chronic daily headache cases!

Headache Medication Can Lead to “Rebound Headaches”

Rebound headaches, also known as “medication-overuse headaches,” happen because of a withdrawal reaction that occurs when you’ve taken pain medications too often, or for too long. This can alter the way your brain’s pain pathways and receptors work.

Dr. Richard Kraig, a neurologist and migraine expert at the University of Chicago Medical Center, told ABC News:

"When those acute headaches become too frequent, and accordingly you follow that same logic of repeating and repeating a dose, your body gets used to that chemical being there and simply counteracts it by building a tolerance to it or a need. So when the medicine is not there, it does exactly the opposite, it triggers pain.”

Rebound headaches typically occur on a daily basis, and though they may improve when you take medication, the pain returns as the medication wears off. The headache may also be accompanied by nausea, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, memory problems, irritability and depression.

An astounding number of medications can lead to rebound headaches, and include virtually every headache drug there is, including:

  • Aspirin

  • Sinus relief medications

  • Acetaminophen

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs)

  • Sedatives for sleep

  • Codeine and prescription narcotics

  • Over-the-counter combination headache remedies containing caffeine (such as Anacin, Excedrin, Bayer Select, and others)

  • Ergotamine preparations (Cafergot, Migergot, Ergomar, Bellergal-S, Bel-Phen-Ergot S, Phenerbel-S, Ercaf, Wigraine and Cafatine PB)

  • Butalbital combination analgesics (Goody’s Headache Powder, Supac, Excedrin)

  • Opiates (codeine)

  • Triptans (migraine medication), such as Imitrex, Zomig, Maxalt, Relpax, Axert, Frova, Amerge, and Treximet

It’s estimated that taking pain medications more than two to three times a week is enough to trigger rebound headaches.

How to Break Free from the Vicious Cycle

When you stop using headache medication, your daily headaches should stop, or at least decrease … but they may get worse before they get better. Withdrawal symptoms, such as headache, nervousness, nausea, insomnia, vomiting and constipation, are common. Fortunately, you can expect your headaches to become less severe within a week to 10 days of stopping the drugs -- although in severe cases it can be several weeks before headaches begin to subside.

As long as you stick to your new drug-free regime, rebound headaches should be cleared within two to six months -- the amount of time studies suggest it takes for your brain to recover from the medication overuse.

The Best Strategy? Prevention!

About 4 percent to 5 percent of U.S. adults suffer from chronic headaches, according to the Mayo Clinic. The majority of these, if not caused by medication overuse, are tension-type headaches often triggered by:

  1. Stress

  1. Not enough sleep

  1. Certain foods and food additives, such as chocolate, cheese, caffeine and monosodium glutamate (MSG).

  1. Grinding your teeth

  1. Depression and anxiety

  1. Skipping meals

  1. Poor posture

  1. Lack of exercise

  1. Holding your head or neck in an awkward position for a long time

  1. Hormonal changes related to menstruation (PMS), menopause, pregnancy or hormone use

  1. Medications, including those for depression and high blood pressure, or overusing headache medication

  1. Overexerting yourself

  1. Sleeping in an awkward position

  1. Eye strain

  1. Fatigue

  1. Smoking

  1. Alcohol

  1. Sinus infections, colds or flu

By identifying your headache triggers, you can help to prevent them from occurring in the first place. For instance, headaches related to sinus infections, colds or flu can often be relieved by nasal cleansing using an Ancient Secrets Nasal Cleansing Pot.

If you notice headaches after spending time slumped behind your desk at work, poor posture could be to blame. In this case, improving your posture will help to keep strain on your muscles, tendons and bones to a minimum, thereby reducing your risk of related headaches.

If you experience frequent headaches but aren’t sure of the cause, experts recommend keeping a "headache diary." In it, record what took place before your headache began. Did you have a double espresso? It may be the caffeine. Did you walk by a perfume counter? You may be sensitive to fragrances.

Often, by learning your triggers and making changes accordingly you can stop headaches from occurring in the first place.

Six Lifestyle Changes to Keep Headaches at Bay


Exercise is one of the best headache remedies there is, known to not only reduce headache frequency and severity but also relieve pain in progress.

A generally healthy lifestyle is important for keeping all types of pain away, and that includes headache pain. Specifically, you should:

  1. Eat a healthy, balanced diet, including plenty of raw foods like fresh fruits and vegetables.
  1. Get enough quality sleep each night. If you have difficulty sleeping, try listening to the highly recommended Sleep Easy CD to help you "shift gears" and relax into sleep.
  1. Exercise -- it's known to reduce the frequency and intensity of headaches, according to the Mayo Clinic. Exercise may even help to relieve the pain of a tension headache in progress, so make it a part of your daily routine. We especially recommend the SheaNetics mind-body workout from, as the diversity of its low-impact movements and flowing sequences help increase flexibility and relieve stress. Plus, it can be done right from your own home.
  1. Keep your stress well-managed. We all have stress; it's the way you deal with it that makes all the difference. Schedule regular times to de-stress during your day by meditating, soaking in a bubble bath, reading or taking a long walk.
  1. Learn the fine art of stretching! Regular stretching is well known to help relieve pain, including headache pain. To learn how to do the right type of stretching -- the kind that actually feel good while you do them (and after!) -- we highly recommend the Stretching Toward a Healthier Life DVD.
  1. Get regular massages. Massages can help to relieve headache pain, and they also loosen up tight muscles in your neck and shoulders, which may also be contributing to your headache.

These lifestyle strategies should be a part of every headache treatment plan and are effective at relieving many types of tension headaches. However, if your headache pain comes on suddenly, is accompanied by fever, a stiff neck, mental confusion, numbness, weakness or double vision, or occurs when you cough, move quickly or strain, it’s important to see your doctor.

Also, you should seek the guidance of a health care practitioner if you want to wean off of headache drugs. In some cases, such as if you’ve been taking large amounts of codeine, sedative-containing combination pills or other drugs, medical supervision and care may be required as you “detox” from the drug.

SixWise Ways!
SixWise Says ...

If you experience visual disturbances, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain or weakness, you are likely having a migraine headache rather than a tension headache, as these symptoms are rare with tension headaches.

Most people who get migraine headaches also experience tension-type headaches, but not necessarily vice versa.

Recommended Reading

Headache Causes: The 18 Most Common Sources of Headaches and What You Need to Know and Do

Death by Medicine: Seniors to Kids, Drugs and Poisons


ABC News September 16, 2010

Oregon State University, College of Pharmacy

American Headache Society Rebound Headaches Rebound Headaches Tension Headache

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