Overusing painkillers 'leads to headaches'

20 September 2012

Headaches are one of the most common pains experienced by people all around the world, with the NHS stating that as many as ten million people in the UK are experiencing this health complaint.

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) confirm it as being one of the most frequent neurological problems "presented to GPs and neurologists".

Painkillers tend to be the most regular treatment given to alleviate the symptoms of headaches, which can vary from mild nuisance to being extremely debilitating.

However, according to the special health authority, those who regularly take medication to ease the pain could in fact be making the problem worse.

Nice explained that the most common headaches experienced are known as tension types, migraines and clusters. These are primary headaches and an overuse of medication can actually exacerbate the condition.

Approximately one in 50 people – around a million – in the UK are believed to be suffering from regular and unbearable headaches because they have been overdoing their medication. In response to this, Nice has developed new guidelines about the appropriate solutions to headaches and the amount of painkillers that should be taken.

Martin Underwood, a GP who chaired the development of this document and professor of primary care research at Warwick Medical School, said that taking medication for more than ten to 15 days can cause "medication overuse headache".

"Patients with frequent tension-type headaches or migraines can get themselves into a vicious cycle, where their headaches are getting increasingly worse, so they take more medication which makes their pain even worse," he added.

However, while the advice to refrain from overdoing medication is sound, those who immediately withdraw from taking painkillers are highly likely to experience withdrawal symptoms.

Speaking to the Guardian, Manjit Matharu, an honorary consultant neurologist at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, noted that in such instances it was inevitable that people would, for the first two to three weeks, experience a "severe rebound".

"They will have an awful two to three weeks. Patients understandably worry about how they are going to feel in the middle of a withdrawal," the expert added. "What I do is make sure that anybody who is going through a withdrawal and [who] I know will be in a huge amount of pain does not have the usual responsibilities."

By this he meant that he would write them a sick note from work so that they had enough time to recover and rest before returning back to a normal way of life.

The idea that headaches need a medical response is a mistake, as most are not serious. The NHS explains that there are pharmacy remedies, but equally, lifestyle changes – be it more rest or more fluids – can have a dramatic impact and massively diminish any sense of pain.

It is worth then, understanding the types of headaches that people experience. As mentioned above, primary headaches consist of tension-types, which are typified by a sort of dull ache and pressure all parts of the head; migraines, less common but so painful that it renders you incapable of working for example; and clusters, just as bad as migraines, but as the name suggests, more frequent.

Posted by Edward Bartel

Health News is provided by Adfero in collaboration with Spire Healthcare. Please note that all copy above is ©Adfero Ltd. and does not reflect views or opinions of Spire Healthcare unless explicitly stated. Additional comments on the page from individual Spire consultants do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of other consultants or Spire Healthcare.

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