Can Painkillers Really Give You Headaches?

The short answer seems to be yes, if you take them too often.

At least, that’s been my experience. A quick google search on the subject leads me to the reassuringly reputable NHS Choices Website and an article entitled painkiller headaches (an oxymoron if there ever was one) where I learn that up to 1 in 10 people who have frequent headaches do so because they take painkillers too often, according Dr Fayyaz Ahmed, a consultant neurologist at Hull Royal Infirmary.

It seems if you take painkillers for too many days out of the month, your body enacts an evil pattern where your brain will produce a rebound headache so you will reward it with more pills. When it comes to which kind of painkillers can do this, I’m afraid it’s all of our dear friends; paracetamol, ibuprofen and of course, the dearest of all, codeine.

So what’s the cure for medication overuse headaches? Please allow me, captain obvious to tell you. Stop taking painkillers when you have a headache, or least – try to cut down on how many days you take them in any given month. Easy, right? No. Not at all. Rage  – inducing, in fact. I remember in one of my early days of trying to stop taking painkillers for my headaches, a trainee consultant neurologist trying to sympathize with me.

“I understand what you’re going through” she told me “I get headaches, too.”

“You do?” I asked her, seeing two of her through my throbbing eyes.

“Well sure,” she said, “when I drink too much. But I don’t see the need to pop a pill everytime I get one. I try to be a bit stronger than that.”

It’s wrong to slap people, my fellow sufferers. I must insist, it’s wrong to slap people.

So what should you do with the information that The Drugs Don’t Work, They Just Make You Worse? For me, when I heard this last year, I decided heed the advice. It was difficult. It was hell, in fact. I made a grand gesture and threw almost the entire contents of my medicine cupboard into the bin. When I felt a headache coming, I went for a walk. I took a bath. I put tumeric in hot milk and cut out sugar and caffeine. And, inexplicably, I started drinking sparkling water. Gallons of the stuff. I cried and shouted and I broke at times and went and bought painkillers anyway (mostly when I was in work).

I was disappointed, but I picked myself up, and tried again. And, again.

And slowly, back in November of last year, I did start to see an improvement. For a period of time, when the going was good, I saw a decrease in my headaches from five or six days a week to one or two days a week. The headaches I did get became less intense or, the most surprising of all, went away on their own, sometimes not to return. Yes, other things triggered my headaches, but cutting down on painkillers really did help.

All of which leaves me with the slightest of niggles. You see, I’m left wondering if medication overuse headaches really are sadly a by – product of chronic headaches and what comes with the misery of trying to nip them in the bud and live a normal life, or if there is, on some level, dare I even suggest it, something in it for the pharmaceutical companies if we keep coming back to buy their pills so we can rid ourselves of the pain.

One part of me wants to just accept it’s something to do with the pathways in my brain and with my own faulty  biological make – up, and to leave it at that. But the other part is curious. Suspicious, almost. The other part of me wants to don a black turtle neck, grab a film crew and a reporter’s notepad and investigate (channelling my best impression of Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich) to see if anyone is indeed captalising on our pain.

And if so, at that point, I think a slap is warranted. Don’t you?



3 thoughts on “Can Painkillers Really Give You Headaches?

  1. I worked for 30 years as an addictions counselor and saw how cunning and sneaky addiction can be. It starts with the rebound pain you mentioned. I know there are people who need Rx pain meds, but if a person takes them every day, a tolerance builds up, the drugs become less effective and the pain rebounds when you stop the medication. If you continue, eventually addiction or at least dependence can sneak up on a person. Wise doctors often recommend a day off of the pain meds now and then to help them work better. But it’s complicated. If withdrawal occurs, professional help may be needed. The same thing happens with coffee, but you probably know that. Good for your for using alternatives.

    Liked by 1 person

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