Concerning Your Health
By Dr. Jennifer Beckwith
How often can I use over-the-counter medication for a headache?
At least one-half of people who suffer from chronic headaches get headaches that are caused by overusing headache medications. When you use a medication too often to treat your headache, the medication can actually cause withdrawal or rebound headaches. Your body has become used to the medication you are using, and when you do not use it within a day or two of the last dose, a rebound or withdrawal headache occurs. So you take another dose of medication. When that medication wears off, you develop another withdrawal headache. This cycle continues as you continue to use medication too frequently to control headaches.
What types of medication can cause medication overuse headaches?
Overuse of any over-the-counter headache medicines, which have acetaminophen, ibuprofen or caffeine as products, can contribute to medication overuse headaches. You can also get overuse headaches while using a prescription headache medicine.
How would I know if my headaches are due to overusing medication?
If you are taking headache medication three or more times a week, and have been doing that for several weeks, it’s likely that you are having overuse headaches. Other symptoms of overuse headaches include headaches that get worse or occur more often, having a headache most days, having morning headaches, and having neck pain with headaches.
What is the treatment for overuse headaches?
If you are having daily or frequent headaches and think your headaches might be medication-induced, stop using all headache medication. Your headaches are likely to get worse or more frequent for a week or so, and then they should diminish or stop. You may still have an occasional headache but not the intensity or frequency that you were experiencing. If your headaches don’t lessen or stop after a week, make an appointment with your primary care doctor. Headaches can also be symptomatic of serious medical problems, and it’s important that you see your doctor to determine the cause.
Jennifer Beckwith, MD, a board certified family medicine physician, sees patients at Sanford North Mandan Clinic. Dr. Beckwith completed her undergraduate degree and medical degree at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, and then did her residency at the UND Center for Family Medicine in Bismarck.