Headache Myth #1: Medications treat the cause of your headache
We see them on television ads, in magazines, and other printed media throughout Australia: they are in the medicine cabinets, bedside drawers, handbags and pockets of hundreds of thousands of Australians. In fact, you’d probably be hard-pressed to find a household without this drug: I am of course talking about pain-relief medications, or analgesics. The main medications used for headache relief in Australia are paracetamol and ibuprofen, although some folk still reach for aspirin when headaches strike.
And of course, there are stronger concoctions that are available either with the pharmacist’s approval (medications containing codeine) or by a medical doctor’s prescription (stronger analgesics for severe headache and migraine).
What many don’t realise as they take these medications is that these analgesics do not actually cure the headache. Certainly the headache generally subsides or disappears when the medication is taken: although it often comes back once the medication has worn off.
Over-the-counter headache relief medication does NOT cure headaches: it simply disables your pain-sensing abilities. You can think of it this way: imagine there is a problem in your body, like a fire in your home. The headache is your body’s signal that there is something wrong, like a ringing fire alarm. When you take an analgesic, it’s like turning off the fire alarm. The alarm stops ringing (the headache goes away): but the fire (the body dysfunction) is still blazing away.
In most cases, the real cause of the headaches remains untreated, which means the real problem doesn’t go away and in fact has the potential to get worse.
For some unfortunate folk, the cycle of taking medication to relieve a headache has led to a new phenomenon: the Analgesic-Rebound Headache. This type of headache occurs after pain-relief medication has worn off, and often people find themselves increasing the next analgesic dose in an effort to get rid of the pain. Cases like this can lead to a viscous cycle of chronic headache: the analgesics contribute to and exacerbate the condition, rather than offering a real solution.
In summary: Pain-relief medications do NOT treat the cause of your headache!
If you do use them, be aware that analgesics simply remove the pain signals, which may allow you to get on with your day. But understand that by failing to investigate the real cause of your headache, you may be setting yourself up for more serious health problems in the future.
Jason Barritt, B.Sc. (Hons), D.C.
Our next Headache-Myth-Busting story looks at Headache Myth #2: “Headache Medication won’t harm you”. Stay tuned…