We all get headaches from time to time, and for many of us, the first instinct to get rid of them is to pop in a painkiller. But doctors say that, for as much as 5 percent of the worldwide population, taking painkillers could be making their agony worse.
All headaches are not the same, but about 1 million Britons suffer from medication-overuse headaches, which feel the same as other headaches. Typically, sufferers have episodic headaches, for which they take painkillers. As the World Health Organization says, "Over time, headache episodes become more frequent, as does medication intake, until both are daily."
Doctors are unsure why painkillers have this effect on the brain, and are not completely sure when the tipping point is. They believe that taking painkillers more than 10 to 15 times in a month may have this effect, though they also say that taking low-dose aspirin for heart problems should be fine.
The medical community also believes that people with a family history of migraines and tension headaches may be genetically more vulnerable to the pain-exacerbating tendency that painkillers may have. People could also be at risk for developing medication-overuse headaches if they are taking painkillers for pain unrelated to headaches.
Guidelines issued by the UK's National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) say that people who think that they may suffer from medication-overuse headaches should abruptly stop taking painkillers for their discomfort. Unfortunately, that remedy will cause agonizing headaches for about a month while their body attempts to negotiate with pain without the help of medication.
Other guidelines attempt to treat the source of pain, rather than the symptoms, like painkillers do. NICE suggests acupuncture as a method, even though the practice has traditionally not been taken seriously; it has been proven to work. The antidepressant amitriptyline also works, though it has not been tested yet.