Headaches are a fairly common malady—everyone gets them from time to time. And for many people, we get a headache and take a painkiller. Whether it’s aspirin, acetaminophen, naproxen, ibuprofen, or another medicine, these painkillers can work well for a headache—if you don’t use them too often. Let’s take a look at why you might want to rethink popping a painkiller every time you get a headache:
Using too much pain medicine is easy to do. But this can make your headache worse and cause other problems as well. If you regularly take painkillers for headaches, they may become less useful, and you may also have headaches more often. Whether or not you suffer from frequent, severe headaches or just the occasional tension headache, you should try to limit the use of over-the-counter and prescription drugs.
Non-prescription analgesics can have dangerous side effects; if you take these drugs too often, they can cause serious side effects. For example, if you regularly take acetaminophen (paracetamol) for several days, you could damage your liver. Rarely, these drugs can also cause kidney problems. Aspirin and ibuprofen sometimes cause gastric bleeding.
An additional problem you may encounter if you take pain relievers regularly is a “medication overuse headache,” also known as a “rebound headache.” This happens when pain medicine becomes less effective and your headache comes back as soon as the medicine wears off. If you choose to take a pain reliever, always follow the dosage recommendations on the label.
When to see a doctor
We often think of headaches as a minor ailment, easily treated at home. But according to the Mayo Clinic, there are times when you should seek immediate medical care. These include:
- Sudden, severe headache
- A headache along with a fever, stiff neck, rash, confusion, seizure, double vision, weakness, numbness or difficulty speaking
- A headache after a head injury
- The headache increases in severity despite rest and pain medication
- A headache along with shortness of breath
- You have a headache when you’re upright that is relieved by lying flat
Alternative headache remedies
It’s a good idea to learn what triggers your headaches, because lifestyle changes can help some people with severe headaches. Record every headache, and keep in mind the possible triggers: food, drinks, sleep patterns, or other things that cause headaches.
You may be able to prevent or reduce headaches if you:
- Reduce stress through biological feedback, meditation, relaxation, etc.
- Minimize alcohol consumption
- Regularly get enough sleep
- Eat regular meals
- Eliminate as many triggers as possible; for example, darken the room to reduce the effects of bright light
- Stay hydrated—it’s a good idea to drink a full glass of water when you first feel a headache coming
- Get some exercise; physical activity releases endorphins (pain-blocking chemicals)
- Reduce screen time—computers, TV, tablets, and mobile phones can cause eye strain, which can also trigger headaches, so take a 20 second break and look at something 20 feet away every 20 minutes
Some people—especially those with migraines— may need headache treatment for extended periods of time. Because this can mean years or even decades, these individuals should take addictive prescription medications only if safer treatment does not work. If you are one of these people, talk with your doctor about whether you really need to take addictive drugs, and ask your doctor how to avoid excessive use and addiction. Choose pain relieving medicines that have proven to be effective. There are many options available, so you and your doctor should come up with a treatment plan that’s based on your medical history.