Chronic daily headache being endlessly fueled and driven by rebound headache (medication overuse headache or MOH) is one of the most common headache disorders that headache specialists encounter every day in clinic.
Chronic daily headache refers to 15-30 days of headache per month on average for 3 or more months. The most common cause of chronic daily headache is typically episodic migraine which has evolved into chronic migraine, in which at least 8 days out of those 15-30 days per month have migrainous characteristics (throbbiness, throbby, pounding, pulsating pain with nausea and/or sensitivity to light (photophobia) and sound (phonophobia)).
Patients that have a prior or current history of headaches such as migraine or tension-type headaches tend to be highly susceptible to developing rebound headache/MOH when certain medications are being used too frequently, but it predominantly occurs in patients with a history of migraine. The overused medications may be actively used for headache (usually the case), but they may also be used for something entirely different such as back pain, nerve pain, arthritis pain, or anything else. The reason these medications are being used doesn’t matter as much as the frequency that they are being used.
When certain medications are used too frequently, it will inadvertently cause the patient’s prior migraines to emerge and begin to increase in frequency and severity until it eventually evolves over time into a chronic daily headache with worsening severity.
Once someone is stuck in the rut of chronic daily headache from chronic migraine and rebound headache/MOH, it can be very challenging to pull them back out of this cycle, and the rebound/MOH must be eliminated before improvement can occur.
In addition, preventative medications (daily medicines used to lessen the frequency and/or severity of headaches) and abortive (“as-needed” at headache onset) pain medications generally become less effective in the setting of rebound/MOH.
How Much Medicine Causes Rebound Headache (Medication Overuse Headache)?
Research has shown that medication overuse can transform episodic migraine (0-14 days of headache per month) to chronic migraine (15-30 days of headache per month) if the following medications are used at the following frequencies:
Greater than 10 days per month for 2 or more consecutive months of over the counter (OTC) pain medications (Tylenol, Excedrin, Acetaminophen, Aleve, Naproxen, Motrin, Advil, Ibuprofen, or other non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs)).
Greater than 10 days per month for 2 or more consecutive months of triptans (Sumatriptan, Rizatriptan, Zolmitriptan, Almotriptan, Frovatriptan, Naratriptan, Eletriptan).
Greater than 8 days per month for 2 or more months of any narcotic, opioid, or opiate medication (Vicodin, Norco, Hydrocodone, Oxycodone, Oxycontin, Percocet, Tramadol, Ultram, Ultracet, Morphine, Codeine, Dilaudid, etc.).
Greater than 5 days per month for 2 or more months of any butalbital containing medication (Fioricet, Fiorinal, Esgic); (also known as “the headache specialist’s worst enemy”).
How Do I Get Out of Rebound Headache?
The chronic daily headaches will never improve until a weaning detoxification from the overused medications happens. It can take 4-6 weeks for improvement to start to occur beginning after there is a consistent detoxification and minimizing use of the offending medication. This time-frame may vary depending on the medicine used, duration of use, frequency of use, and quantity of use.
It is also important to know that as the patient is weaning and detoxing from the overused medications, headaches will commonly get worse (rebound) before they get better. I always warn patients of this possibility. The hardest part of breaking out of this cycle can be getting through that rebound hump. Unfortunately, there is not typically a “quick fix” for this scenario.
This process of weaning and detoxification is generally accompanied by starting and adjusting preventative daily headache medications by the patient’s physician. A general slow wean off of overused medications is seen below, and can be adjusted based on quantity and frequency of the overused medication:
Week 1: If using daily, decrease to half (or 2/3rd) of the amount of medication typically used daily (for example, if taking Tylenol 4 times per day, decrease to 2 times per day, etc.).
Week 2: Use no more than 6 days per week.
Week 3: Use no more than 5 days per week.
Week 4: Use no more than 4 days per week.
Week 5: Use no more than 3 days per week.
Week 6: Use no more than 2 days per week or less.
Some people prefer to get through this weaning process faster rather than a slow wean such as this. Some choose to stop their overused medications “cold turkey” to expedite the process. This should be discussed with your physician because it can be medically unsafe to abruptly stop some medications such as fioricet, fiorinal, butalbital, opioids and opiates which can result in seizures, irregular heart rhythms, blood pressure changes, or other withdrawal syndromes.
A “bridging” medication to help “bridge” out of this cycle is often used, or provided as a rescue to save for use during a slow wean to take if the rebound headache becomes intolerable. These bridging rescue medications may include a course of steroids, NSAIDs, IV infusions, or many other options depending on what medicine is being weaned and other medical conditions present.
The bottom line is that it can be a painful, frustrating, and challenging process to pull out of a rebound/MOH cycle. So hang in there and stick with it because once you successfully get out of this rut, you’ll be happy you did!
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