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Effectiveness and Side Effects of Headache Drugs

By: Ian Murnaghan BSc (hons), MSc - Updated: 21 Jul 2010 | comments*Discuss
Drugs Side Effects Effectiveness Doctor

Virtually every headache drug has side effects and the potential for side effects is usually higher when the drug is a prescription one. While some of these side effects are mostly bothersome others are quite serious and may be life threatening. Another difficulty that may arise is when side effects are so uncomfortable that you consider stopping the medication. It can be a balancing act to obtain the maximum effectiveness of a drug while keeping side effects tolerable.

Maximize Desired Effects and Minimize Undesired Ones

The main goal with headache treatment is to maximize the therapeutic benefits of the drug while at the same time, minimize the unpleasant side effects that may occur. Following directions and avoiding medication overuse are two of the most important things you can do to avoid problems. It's also important to inquire whether medications are best taken on an empty stomach or with food as this can be crucial for medication effectiveness and can also impact any stomach effects that the drug may cause. You should also inquire if the drug can affect any activity requiring concentration, such as driving.

Should side effects occur, you may be able to alleviate them with little effort, depending on the effect itself. Common side effects to headache drugs include:

  • Fluid retention
  • Irregular heart rate
  • Numbness and tingling in extremities
  • Nausea
  • Sensitivity to cold or heat
  • Throat and mouth irritation

Other side effects of a more serious nature can also occur and these should prompt immediate medical attention. These may include:

  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Intense drowsiness or loss of consciousness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Pain or tight sensation in chest
  • Rash
  • Any swelling, particularly in the face and throat

Allergies and Cautions

If you suffer from any allergies, be sure to let your doctor know so that he or she can prescribe another effective drug for your head pain. Off-label use also does exist, where your physician may feel that a drug is appropriate for your headache, although the drug itself is approved for a different use. Some physicians feel that drugs should be used only to treat the specific headache for which they were approved and off-label use should be approached with caution and on a case-by-case basis.

Many individuals will suffer from more than one type of headache, and may be tempted to use one medication for all headaches. If your doctor hasn't indicated so, only use the medication for the headache directed in the accompanying medication information. This means that if you have a prescription for use when a migraine attacks, you should not use this for relief of stress headaches. You are more likely to suffer side effects and you can also potentially set yourself up for rebound headaches from medication overuse.

Always be alert to unusual side effects that are not listed in the provided drug information. If you feel particularly frightened by a severe side effect, you may need immediate medical attention. Don't feel worried that you are overreacting, as it is best to find out that a side effect is not serious than to ignore it and suffer dangerous consequences.

Some headache drugs operate by restricting blood vessels in the brain, which is good news for head pain but can be bad news if you have other conditions that affect your blood vessels. Less specific headache drugs that affect blood vessels throughout the body can cause detrimental effects in individuals suffering from circulation-based conditions or heart diseases as well as elevated blood pressure.

Ergot Drugs

Side effects can occur with virtually any drug, but some are particularly potent and may be more likely to cause serious adverse effects. One such class is the ergot compounds. Ingesting too much of an ergot derivative can lead to ergot poisoning where you experience an intense rebound headache, sore muscles, numbness and extreme sensitivity to cold. An important feature of the ergots is that they may react badly with triptans, another class of drugs commonly prescribed for headaches. Your doctor will discuss any concerns about prescription medication combinations and may advise that you do not take certain medications within a specific time frame.

Pregnancy or Breastfeeding

Pregnant women have to be particularly cautious when taking any medication, including an over-the-counter one. The side effects of many headache drugs during pregnancy are still unknown and have not all received a great deal of research. Ergots have a strong potential for side effects on any individual but more so with pregnant women so these should be avoided. If you are not currently pregnant but do intend to become pregnant, you should let your physician know before commencing a prescription headache drug. Also, do be aware that some headache drugs can pass into breast milk and as such, you should check if it's safe to continue the medication while you are breastfeeding.

Ask Questions

If a doctor prescribes a particular drug for your headaches, be sure to ask him or her precisely what the drug does, and how it works in your body. In addition, you should ask your doctor to explain any side effects and cautions in 'plain' language, without the use of confusing medical jargon. Don't be afraid to ask your doctor to repeat information if you have any confusion over medication side effects and use. Miscommunication and confusion about exactly how to use a medication can be dangerous and it's best to be repetitive than unsure of how to take a medication.

By communicating clearly, your doctor should be able to provide important information about your prescription medication. With caution and care, you can enjoy the headache relief benefits of prescription drugs while minimizing their side effects.

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