What are medication overuse headaches?

As many as 50% to 80% of chronic daily headache sufferers say they use painkillers frequently—which, paradoxically, actually makes their headaches worse. This common problem, known as medication overuse headache, can occur with overuse of any headache medication, but caffeine-containing drugs are most often to blame. Contrary to popular belief, caffeine has long-lasting effects and can stay in your system for two to three days. If you take caffeine-containing medications more than two to three times a week, the vasoconstricting effect builds up. But when the caffeine wears off, you experience vasodilation, which reignites your headache—an effect similar to a "weekend headache."

In addition to the rebound vasodilation, experts also speculate that regular use of analgesics interferes with the body's natural painkilling system. Because painkillers mask symptoms, whatever is causing the pain may worsen. As the pain becomes more intense, painkillers are less able to control it.

People with medication-induced chronic daily headache may experience severe pain upon awakening, which then lessens as the day goes on—the exact reverse of the pattern most often seen in chronic daily headache. Such severe morning headaches probably result because any medication taken during the day has worn off during the night. The pain then subsides during the day as additional medication is taken.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.