While most people’s immediate response to a headache is to reach for the medicine cabinet, new research suggests the very drugs meant to decrease your pain could be making it worse.
Up to a million people in the UK suffer from severe headaches as a result of taking too many painkillers, according to the BBC. Often, they take more medication to dull the pain, which then causes even more headaches, trapping them in a vicious cycle.
These completely preventable headaches, known as “medication overuse headaches” feel the same as other common types of headaches or migraines. It is thought that most of the people affected began with either migraines or everyday, tension-type headaches. As they treated themselves with over-the-counter medications, the headaches became worse.
There is no definitive data on how common such headaches may be. Studies have estimated anywhere between 1 and 5% of people may be affected. Scientists do not yet fully understand why painkillers have this effect on the brain.
New headache treatment guidelines from the UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) advise doctors to tell patients to stop taking pain relievers. This leads to about a month of pain until the patient’s symptoms gradually improve. They recommended that medication-free options, like preventive treatments and acupuncture, be considered for controlling underlying headaches.
Gallagher, James. Painkillers ‘are the cause’ of millions of headaches. BBC News. September 18, 2012. Accessed October 15, 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-19622016.
Headaches: diagnosis and management of headaches in young people and adults- Clinical Guidelines, CG150-Issued September 2012. Headaches: National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. Accessed October 15, 2012. http://www.nice.org.uk/CG150.