Why taking painkillers for a headache could simply be making things worse

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UPDATED:

23:01 GMT, 18 September 2012

'Vicious cycle': Taking aspirin, ibuprofen or paracetamol at least every other day can leave sufferers more prone to headaches

'Vicious cycle': Taking aspirin, ibuprofen or paracetamol at least every other day can leave sufferers more prone to headaches (stock image)

Hundreds of thousands of people are suffering from ‘disabling’ headaches caused by overuse of painkillers, experts warn.

As many as one in 50 of the population regularly has headaches triggered by the very drugs meant to be numbing their pain.

The risk is highest for those who take aspirin, ibuprofen or paracetamol at least every other day to treat either a headache or another condition such as joint pain.

The health watchdog NICE says that
taking too many of these pills can actually make the brain more
sensitive to pain, leaving the sufferer prone to further headaches.

Often
they get into a ‘vicious cycle’ whereby their headaches get worse, they
take more drugs and the pain becomes even more debilitating. As many as
10million Britons suffer from severe headaches but NICE is concerned
that many doctors are not properly diagnosing the type of pain or
offering the best treatment.

Many
could be better off taking alternative drugs called triptans, inhaling
oxygen or even having acupuncture, the watchdog says.

Professor Martin Underwood, a GP and Warwick Medical School researcher who helped draw up the guidelines, said: ‘We have effective treatments for common headache types.

Bad odds: One in 50 people regularly get headaches from the drugs meant to be ridding them of the pain

Bad odds: One in 50 people regularly get headaches from the drugs meant to be ridding them of the pain (posed by model)

'However, taking these medicines for
more than ten or 15 days a month can cause medication overuse headache,
which is a disabling and preventable disorder.

‘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 as they take more medication.’

Pugh

Official figures show that the NHS spends over 470million a year on painkiller prescriptions, although not all will be for headaches. Some 62.5million prescriptions were handed out by GPs last year, a 4 per cent rise in just 12 months.

But Dr Gillian Leng, deputy chief executive of NICE, said that too many people were not being given a ‘correct or timely diagnosis’ by their doctors, adding: ‘The key features of medication overuse and the symptoms that distinguish the types of primary headache can be overlooked, and concerns from patients about possible underlying causes can lead to unnecessary hospital investigations.

‘These can mean people experience delays in receiving adequate pain relief from what can be an extremely disabling condition.’

Doctors advising the watchdog said some patients were so worried about their headaches they were begging their GPs to refer them for expensive brain scans to rule out tumours.

Dr Manjit Matharu, a consultant at the National Hospital for Neurology in London, said: ‘Most people’s headaches will not be caused by brain tumours or other serious health problems, and so these should not be offered to patients solely for reassurance.’