When Medicine Makes Headaches Worse
Deceptive Warnings continued...
Sometimes, even following the directions on the label isn't
enough. Diamond, Gallagher, and Smith all agree that you should not take any
kind of painkiller for a headache more than two days a week.
However, you may notice that the warning on the bottle of
aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen says that you can take the medication for
up to ten days. Surely, the warning couldn't be wrong.
"That suggestion is fine for pain other than
headache pain," says Gallagher. "For shoulder or knee pain or something
like that, you can take the medication for a longer time.
"But headaches are totally different," Gallagher
continues. "You cannot use painkillers for headaches more than two days a
week or you're likely to start suffering from rebound pain."
Diamond reports that he regularly sees patients who have
seriously harmed their bodies by overusing painkillers.
When overused, aspirin irritates the digestive tract,
potentially causing bleeding and peptic ulcers; it can also damage the kidneys.
Acetaminophen has its own dangers, and in large enough quantities, it damages
the liver -- especially when combined with alcohol. Most over-the-counter and
prescription painkillers should not be used with alcohol, but that's a warning
frequently ignored, Diamond says.
Sufferers of rebound headaches can gradually get to the point
where they are taking staggering doses of painkillers. "We see patients who
use upwards of 10 to 20 tablets per day," says Smith. "I think my
all-time record holder was a guy who said he took 35 Excedrin a day. I don't
know how he tolerated them."
Curing Rebound Headaches
The only way to stop rebound headaches is simple, at least in
theory: Stop taking the medication that's causing them. However, it isn't easy
"During withdrawal, you can get nausea and extreme
fatigue," says Diamond, "as well as severe headaches."
These symptoms usually abate within days or weeks, but full
recovery is a gradual process and can take months, Gallagher says.
Gallagher also observes that the effects of the overused drug
are not only physiological. "There's a psychological dependence that can
develop as well," he says. "A person gets used to taking the medication
in response to any headache pain or even a sensation that they think
might develop into headache pain. That makes going off the drug