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Let’s Talk About Headaches and Substance Abuse

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably experienced them: headaches. And if you’re in recovery, you’ve more than likely encountered them as either a side effect to substance abuse or as an effect of withdrawal.

But did you know different types of substances can produce different types of headaches?

Headaches and Their Causes

Read on to learn what causes these painful conditions and what you can do to alleviate them:

  • Alcohol Abuse. It may come as no surprise that knocking back a few may trigger migraine-type headaches in some people. I, for one, can clearly remember the splitting head pain I dealt with the morning after a wild and crazy night out. Unsurprisingly, studies have found that alcohol use leads to an increase in headache severity and/or frequency. One such study investigated the rate of alcohol abuse in 81 patients with migraine-type headaches (one of the most prevalent headache types, often associated with specific ‘triggers’) and 62 with tension-type headaches (a more severe form associated with considerable disability). They found those suffering from tension-type headaches drank alcohol at a significantly higher rate, leading one to believe that alcohol was a contributing factor in causing the more severe form of headache.
  • Drug Use. It’s not just alcohol that contributes to a pounding head. Abusing over-the-counter and prescription medication can also be associated with the onset or risk of headaches. In fact, estimates suggest that up to 50 percent of medication-overuse headaches are caused by abusing conventional medications recommended to treat such pain, such as Ibuprofen.
  • Smoking. Regular smoking can also lead to headaches, namely during nicotine withdrawal. Interestingly enough, using Chantix, a drug often used as a nicotine-replacement therapy, can also cause headaches as a side effect.
  • Illicit Drugs. Illicit drugs, such as cocaine, marijuana and amphetamines, are a contributing factor for headaches. In fact, a study of 210 people reporting cluster headaches (a type characterized by a number of headaches occurring in quick succession and known to be extremely debilitating) found that nearly 72 percent of this group used drugs before the onset of this condition.

Alternative Headache Therapies

The good news is, some headaches can be treated with over-the-counter medications, such as Advil or Aleve. But if this is not enough, or you’re afraid of over-medicating, look into meditation or acupuncture. There’s also treatment for more severe headaches, such as a nerve block, which involves numbing the area with a local anesthetic or corticosteroids, or diagnostic imaging.

But if none of these relief methods work, there is one surefire way to avoid substance-induced headaches: abstinence.

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