YONKERS, NY — Consumer Reports advises people who suffer from frequent headaches to talk to their doctors before reaching again into their medicine cabinets. Overuse of prescription and over-the-counter pain medications can make headaches worse, according to Consumer Reports’ medical adviser Orly Avitzur, M.D., who reports in CR’s October issue on how some consumers inadvertently create their own headaches.
“People tend not to think of headache pills, especially those they can buy without a prescription, as ‘serious’ drugs,” says Dr. Avitzur. “But, used improperly, even drugs like acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and aspirin can increase headache pain. Instead of reaching for a pill when a headache comes on, people should consider alternatives. Relaxation techniques, exercise, and acupuncture can all help ease headache pain. People who suffer from frequent or severe headaches should see their doctors.”
Consumer Reports notes that regular use of pain relievers can bring on a condition known as medication-overuse headache, which affects up to two-thirds of patients who seek help at headache treatment centers. The International Headache Society defines medication-overuse headaches as those that are present for at least 15 days a month or have developed or markedly worsened because the sufferer used too much medication.
The problem can be caused by prescription pain medicines, over-the-counter pain relievers, or combinations of medications. Almost all such drugs have the potential to cause medication-overuse headaches. Dr. Avitzur reports that some experts believe the main culprits to be preparations containing barbiturates (such as Fioricet and Fiorinal), opioids, acetaminophen, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory agents such as ibuprofen (Advil and generic) or naxproxen (Aleve and generic), and migraine-specific drugs called triptans (such as Imitrex and Maxalt).
Dr. Avitzur notes that the ready availability of nonprescription pain relievers on drugstore shelves and in many homes may be contributing to the problem. A recent ConsumerReports survey of more than 6,000 subscribers confirmed that most of their medicine cabinets did contain over-the-counter pain relief drugs including acetaminophen (73 percent), ibuprofen (73 percent), and aspirin (69 percent). In a separate survey of 47,283 Consumer Reports subscribers conducted last year, 31 percent admitted that they did not always carefully follow directions on labels. Those who routinely overused drugs justified it because their pain was severe, they felt no side effects, or they believed that their above-average weight or height warranted additional medication.
Consumer Reports offers the following four tips for treating headache pain:
TIPS FOR TREATING HEADACHE PAIN
1. Use Pain Medications Properly
Always follow label directions for how to take the medication, and don’t take the medication more than twice a week. People whose headaches persist should see a doctor.
2. Talk to Your Doctor
Chronic headache sufferers should inform their doctors of all prescription and nonprescription drugs they’re taking, including any supplements.
3. Explore Alternatives
Pills aren’t the only way to treat headache pain. Nondrug treatments such as acupuncture, biofeedback, physical therapy, and relaxation techniques can also be effective.
4. Cut Down on Pain Drugs
People who have medication-overuse headaches should work with their doctors to taper off the drugs. They should also ask their doctors whether a drug designed to prevent headaches (a prophylactic agent) might help them.