What Your Rebound Headaches Symptoms Mean to You
Every single day now for weeks (maybe even longer), you’ve been getting an awful headache.
Regardless, the only thing that ever seems to stop the pain is drinking more coffee or popping more pills.
You feel better for a little bit (maybe).
The pain may even abate completely.
But then the next day—or even later the same day—the headache symptoms just comes. right. back.
There are a lot of potential causes of chronic daily headache, but sometimes headaches like these are classified as “rebound migraines” or “rebound headaches.”
What Are Rebound Headaches?
Rebound headaches happen when your body establishes dependency on a drug, typically a pain medication. Ironically, you are probably taking the drug in question to treat headaches to begin with.
The problem is that between doses, you start going into withdrawal. This presents is the exact same symptom that you are trying to treat or prevent begin with.
Many people who suffer from rebound headaches do not even realize that that is what is going on. They simply think that their medication is not doing its job, or that they need more of it. They do not realize that in this situation, the cure is as bad as the disease.
Who Is At Risk for Rebound Headaches?
Not sure whether your headaches could be rebound headaches? It helps to know who is at risk.
Generally, if you are only taking your medication a couple days out of the week, it is unlikely that you will develop rebound headaches. Rebound headaches are more likely in the following cases:
- If you are using triptans—especially if you are using three of them over the course of a week.
- If you are taking any kind of pain medication for more than 10 days out of a month.
This is why in all likelihood, if you talk to a doctor, he or she has probably advised you not take your medication more than 2 to 3 days out of any given week. That way you are less likely to exceed 10 days a month.
This can help prevent rebound headaches from occurring.
Note that not everybody who takes multiple triptans order takes pain medications for more than 10 days of the month is susceptible to rebound headaches.
Many people never experience them at all. Still, you should be very cautious if you are engaging in a high-risk behavior.
What Kinds of Drugs Can Lead to Rebound Headaches?
Numerous different medications may be involved with the development of rebound headaches. Here are some common examples:
- Medications for sinus infections
- Sleep medications
- Any medications with caffeine
- Butalbital combination medications
- Ergotamine medications
As you can see, both over-the-counter and prescription medications may lead to rebound headaches.
Also take note that you may not be using any medication at all, and might still develop rebound headaches if you have too much caffeine in your diet.
Sometimes all it takes is too many cups of coffee a day, and you might start experiencing these recurring daily headaches. Chances are good you may even have observed this among other people you know—overworked students at school or co-workers at the daily grind.
How Can You Get Rid of Rebound Headaches?
If you suspect that you have rebound headaches, obviously you will need to take steps to get rid of them. You may still have other underlying headache issues, but the rebound headaches are adding to them and making them worse. And in some cases, rebound headaches may actually be all you are suffering from. If you can stop them, you might experience total relief.
Unfortunately, this is an intimidating prospect. Being as overuse of the medication (or caffeine) is responsible for your rebound headaches, the only way to stop the process from continuing to cycle is to quit using the medication, at least for a certain period of time.
Just how long will you need to quit your medication? It may take up to 6 to 8 weeks in order for rebound headaches to go away. Note that that is 6 to 8 weeks of not using your medication at all. Also take note that 6 to 8 weeks is the upper end; in many situations, something closer to 5-10 days may be all that is needed.
With certain substances (narcotics, sedatives, hypnotics, triptans, and so on), you may experience additional withdrawal symptoms during the detoxification process. These symptoms can be quite intense. They will include not only the headaches, but also in some cases vomiting, nausea, sleep disruptions, and sometimes other symptoms as well.
That means that in certain situations, detoxing may be dangerous if you attempt it on their own. So depending on the situation, you may need to consult a doctor before you try to quit your medication. Additional measures may be required to ensure a safe and successful detox, such as:
- Gradually weaning off the medication, instead of quitting cold turkey
- Taking a preventative treatment before you begin detoxing
- In some cases, a hospitalization period may be necessary
While you are detoxing, make sure that you drink plenty of water.
Eventually, after detoxification is complete, your withdrawal symptoms will go away, including the rebound headaches.
How Can You Prevent Rebound Headaches in the Future?
If there is still some underlying health condition which is causing continuing migraines or tension headaches, you may be worried you will enter into another overuse cycle with your medication, leading to more rebound migraines in the future. How can you prevent this from happening?
Remember the risk factors involved in rebound headaches. If you are taking triptans, try not to use three of them all during the same week. As to any other medications you are using to manage your pain (including coffee), try not to rely on them for more than 10 days out of any given month. You could also try switching medications. You might find that one of them creates a dependency cycle, while another does not.
You also should look into alternative methods for managing and reducing your pain. I will tell you more about this in just a moment. But first I want to talk briefly about something called “transformed migraines.”
A Related Concept: Transformed Migraines
Transformed migraines are something you may or may not have heard of. They are not the same thing as rebound headaches, but they may be a related concept.
If you used to have sporadic migraines, and lately you have started experiencing them more and more frequently, there is a chance you have transformed migraines.
Transformed migraines usually develop over a period of months or years. They are most common among women, and especially among people in their 20s or 30s. Reportedly they often are comorbid with depression and/or hypertension.
Researchers still do not totally understand transformed migraines. But one of the theories does have to do with medication. It is possible that overuse of certain medications might lead to the development of long-term tolerance or dependency. Sometimes outright misuse (inappropriately mixing together medications that should never go together) might also cause transformed migraines.
Transformed migraines are often characterized by the statement, “My migraines are less severe than they used to be, but I have them every day.”
Still, doctors do not consider transformed migraines to necessarily be interchangeable with rebound headaches.
So if you are experiencing symptoms like these, transformed migraines are something else to consider.
In either case, both point toward the dangers of overusing or abusing medications.
Alternative Treatments for Head Pain
When you realize you may need to quit your medication completely for several weeks and/or reduce your dosage over the long term, your first impulse will probably be to panic.
This is understandable; being helpless against pain is pretty much as scary as it gets in life.
There are a lot of ways you can help treat and prevent headaches however which do not leave you relying exclusively on medications or caffeine.
For migraines, try:
- Find the cause if you can and treat it (hormonal imbalance is an example of a treatable underlying cause).
- Identify your migraine triggers and avoid them.
- Eat a nutritious diet and make sure you always are staying hydrated and well-fed.
- Work out regularly.
- Sexual activity may reduce your pain (this works for many migraine sufferers, but not all).
- Reduce stress in your life.
- Take time to rest or nap when you need to.
- Get plenty of sleep each night and keep a regular schedule.
- Use an herbal supplement for migraines to restore balance to your body.
- Try using cold packs to treat migraine flares when they occur.
- Move to a dark room if you have a flare and bright light is a trigger.
Read more in our comprehensive guide, 9 Steps for Instant Relief from Migraines.
For tension headaches, try:
- Get any joint misalignment issues treated by a chiropractor.
- If there is an associated injury, treat it.
- Ensure you are getting enough sleep every night.
- Make sure your pillow provides adequate neck support.
- See to your posture when you are sitting and standing as well.
- De-stress and treat depression and anxiety.
- Routinely check to see if you are holding in tension (for example by tensing up your shoulders). If you are, work on breaking the habit.
- Practice deep breathing or meditation.
- If you are in the middle of a tension headache, try switching positions until you find one that takes the strain off.
- Use a heating pad or take a hot shower.
- Exercise or stretch—with care.
- Get a massage.
Reading this list, you may wonder whether taking these steps can possibly have a major impact on your pain—especially if you have been relying entirely on medications to date to manage your headaches.
But as someone who suffers from both tension headaches and migraines and who did have chronic daily headache for a very long time, I can tell you that these simple techniques have made a world of difference.
Thankfully I never experienced rebound headaches. But I have vastly reduced the amount of medication I need to manage my migraines and tension headaches using nothing more than the techniques above.
I used to take around 6-8 Ibuprofen tablets daily. Often that hardly put a dent in my pain, but I was desperate. Nowadays I often get away with just 3-4, and often none at all.
The single most important thing I did to reduce my dependency was figure out the cause of my headaches (hormonal imbalance and a misaligned jaw) and start treating those causes.
But all of the techniques above have worked wonders as well, right alongside medication. The trick with getting results is to be incredibly committed to them on a daily basis, even if that means you sometimes have to drop what you are doing and provide yourself with the self-care you need.
Stop Abusing Your Medications, And Your Pain Will Reduce
So if you are crushed under the pain of daily rebound headaches, don’t get too discouraged at the thought of coming down from your medications! Withdrawal is no fun at all, and it can even be scary—but think about all the pain you will spare yourself over the months or years to come.
And if doing this drives you to discover the root cause of your migraines or tension headaches, you could find yourself on a path to treatment which reduces your pain and restores health to your entire body.