Turns Out This Common Pain Killer Could Be Causing Your Nagging Headaches

Everyone has an occasional headache. But some people suffer from headaches that can thoroughly disrupt their daily lives. Known as migraines, these headaches typically come with nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, and a deep throbbing of the head, states Medline Plus. Resulting from abnormal brain activity, migraine headaches may be triggered by caffeine withdrawal, irregular or inadequate sleep, alcohol consumption, and missed meals, to name a few. According to the Cleveland Clinic, approximately 12% of people in the U.S. suffer from migraines, ranking sixth among the world's most disabling conditions.  

Treatment for migraine pain can take many different forms. However, many use over-the-counter (OTC) medications like Advil Migraine or Motrin Migraine Pain. These medications contain ibuprofen, which is effective in helping to relieve the pain of a headache. However, the problem comes when these medications are used too often by those with a headache disorder. Overuse of ibuprofen can create a rebound headache. This is especially true when these medications are taken several times a week.

Rebound headaches from ibuprofen

When your headache strikes, reaching for your tried-and-true OTC ibuprofen medication might be second nature. However, after a few days of taking the medication, the pain might have lessened, but you still have a nagging headache. This headache is known as a rebound or medication overuse headache. The Mayo Clinic also notes rebound headaches generally only appear in those who suffer from a headache disorder, like migraines.

The symptoms of a rebound headache can vary, according to WebMD. However, repeat ibuprofen usage creates a revolving headache cycle where the medication wears off, triggering withdrawal. Reaching for your medication to relieve the symptoms only leaves you with more pain, which can be severe for those taking more than the recommended dosage of ibuprofen. Other symptoms to watch for include headaches that occur in the morning, lead to poor sleep, and return when pain medications wear off, per StatPearls. You can also experience nausea, trouble concentrating, memory problems, and irritability.

About 1 in every 100 people worldwide suffers from rebound headaches, and it's relatively common in those with chronic migraines. A rebound headache can be rather severe, depending on how long you've overused the medication.

Breaking the cycle of rebound headaches

Getting a headache from your medication can be beyond frustrating. Stephen Silberstein, MD, FAAN, director of the Headache Center at Jefferson University Hospitals in Philadelphia, told Brain & Life, "Patients may think that if a little [medication] is good, more must be better, but with migraine that's just not the case." Additionally, rebound headaches can be hard to diagnose since the individual is already fighting migraine headaches several times a month.

It's essential to work with your healthcare provider to get a diagnosis and reduce the overuse of ibuprofen (per Harvard Health Publishing). This can be tough for a migraine sufferer since, in many cases, these are the only medications that work. Therefore, your healthcare provider might prescribe another medicine to use in the meantime to help alleviate headache symptoms. As Kevin Weber, MD, advised (via Brain & Life), "Ask your doctor [...] ways to ease the discomfort without risking yet another round of drug overuse."

Once you've ended the cycle, it's something you want to avoid jumping right back into, per Harvard. Thus, you should limit your use of headache drugs within a week, and contact your provider if you're taking medication too frequently. Some healthcare providers might prescribe preventative medicines, like Depakote or Topamax, to alleviate the need for ibuprofen. It's also essential to control your migraine attack triggers by eating balanced meals, getting enough sleep, avoiding loud places or lights, and limiting stress.