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The Hidden Dangers of Relying on Painkillers for Headaches

In America, one in every six people report having migraines or severe headaches every three months. Most rely on painkillers for headache relief. A report from market research firm Allied Market Research indicated that the US pain management drug market was worth more than $25 million in 2021 and would reach $34.8 million by 2031. 

While these drugs temporarily relieve headache, dependence on them can have serious side effects. Let us explore them in this blog. We’ll also look into chiropractic care as a natural headache treatment alternative.

Common Types of Painkillers Used for Headaches

painkillers used for headaches

Headache painkillers come in two classes: nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and opioids.

NSAIDs reduce inflammation or swelling at the site of the pain. Medicines of this kind include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Aspirin (e.g., Bayer®)
  • Ibuprofen (e.g., Advil®)
  • Naproxen (e.g., Aleve®)

Opioids or narcotics, on the other hand, bind to receptors in the nervous system and alter the brain’s perception of pain signals. Although there are standalone opioid medications such as tramadol (e.g., Ultram®), it is common to combine them with NSAIDs. Examples include

  • Aspalgin®, which combines aspirin and the opioid codeine;
  • Vicoprofen®, which combines ibuprofen and the opioid hydrocodone; and
  • Combunox®, which combines ibuprofen and the opioid oxycodone.

OTC vs. Prescription Painkillers

Headache painkillers are available over the counter (OTC) or by prescription. Typically, OTC medicines contain lower doses of active ingredients compared to prescription medicines, so they’re less potent. That said, they’re not totally risk-free. It’s all too easy to develop painkiller dependency for headache relief—whether you’re taking OTC or prescription medicine—especially when you have chronic headaches.

Likewise, prescription painkillers are not more effective just because they’re more potent. They may be the better option for severe headaches, but they also come with higher risks of side effects and dependence. In some cases, nonprescription medication may be equally effective with a lower level of risk.

The Dangers of Headache Painkiller Reliance

Painkillers for headache relief undoubtedly work when used as prescribed. However, too much of anything can harm you. Here are a few possible consequences of overmedicating on painkillers.

a middle aged woman expressing pain while holding her temples

Medication Overuse Headache

Medication overuse headache (MOH), also known as rebound headache, can occur with frequent or excessive use of painkillers. Rather than providing relief, overusing painkillers can actually make the headache come back, often stronger. 

Any type of painkiller can cause you to develop MOH. However, certain prescription medications, especially opioids, are more likely to do so.

Physical Dependence

You become physically dependent on pain medication when your body builds a tolerance to it. When that happens, the initial dose of the medicine may no longer provide pain relief, so you seek a larger dose to achieve the desired effect. 

This escalation of dosage can complicate pain management and requires careful tapering of the medication. Otherwise, you may experience withdrawal symptoms if you suddenly stop taking the drug or reduce the dosage. 

Liver Toxicity

Prescription-strength NSAIDs such as diclofenac, etoricoxib, and celecoxib can pose a risk of liver toxicity. While rare, certain factors can increase the risk, including preexisting liver disease, alcohol use, and concurrent use of other medications that affect liver function.

Liver toxicity from NSAIDs can manifest as elevated liver enzymes in blood tests, indicating inflammation or damage to liver cells.

Gastrointestinal Bleeding

Overusing NSAIDs can increase the risk of gastrointestinal bleeding and ulcers. NSAIDs work by inhibiting an enzyme involved in inflammation, but they can also inhibit a protective enzyme in the stomach lining, leading to irritation and damage. 

If you have a history of gastrointestinal problems or take blood thinners, you’re at a higher risk of experiencing gastrointestinal bleeding with NSAID use.


Compulsive drug-seeking behavior despite negative consequences is characteristic of addiction. While not everyone who uses painkillers will develop an addiction, opioid users, in particular, are at a high risk, especially with misuse or abuse.

Mental Health Problems

The stigma associated with addiction can contribute to feelings of shame, guilt, and isolation. Addiction to painkillers can also consume your life, leading to neglect of responsibilities, loss of employment, and strained relationships.

Cognitive Dysfunction

Chronic use of painkillers, particularly opioids, may result in cognitive dysfunction, including mental dullness and concentration problems. Cognitive dysfunction can then impact various aspects of daily life, such as decision-making and problem-solving.

Chiropractic Care: A Natural Alternative to Headache Management

doctor assisting a female patient with headache

Painkillers are not the only solution for headaches. In fact, medication is only a part of a multimodal approach that may include lifestyle changes and alternative treatments. 

Chiropractic care is one such alternative, and the benefits of choosing chiropractic care over painkillers for headache management are plenty. 

Chiropractic is a holistic treatment. It does not only relieve pain and discomfort but also addresses the underlying cause of your headache, which may be spinal misalignment. When your spine gets out of line, it causes pressure on the nerves that connect to different parts of your body, including the head. It then leads to headaches.

Chiropractic is also a drug-free approach. Therefore, there’s no risk of becoming dependent on or addicted to any drug. If medications are part of your headache treatment, the effectiveness of chiropractic can reduce the need and reliance on them.

Finally, chiropractic supports long-term pain relief and overall well-being. By removing interference to nerve communications, chiropractic adjustments harness the body's natural ability to relieve pain and repair itself.


We cannot overstate the dangers of overreliance on painkillers for headache relief. From the risk of medication overuse headache to the potential for addiction and internal organ damage, the consequences can be dire. Fortunately, there is a natural alternative to this traditional pain management method: chiropractic care.

Zaker Chiropractic Center offers holistic headache management solutions in Torrance, San Pedro, and Newport Beach. Led by Dr. Misa Zaker, a trusted and expert chiropractor, we provide personalized and effective treatments for patients seeking relief from headaches.
Ready to break free from painkillers? Book an appointment with us today!

Dr. Misa Zaker, D.C.
As a South Bay resident and graduate from UCLA Dr. Zaker specializes in comprehensive multifaceted chiropractic care and manipulation under anesthesia (MUA). After getting his doctor of chiropractic degree at Southern California University of Health Sciences Dr. Zaker built his practice with a goal of changing the perception of what a chiropractic treatment consists of. Dr. Zaker has treated many professionals and amateur athletes including UFC pros, marathoners, swimmers, dancers, and cyclists. Certified in Nerve Conduction Velocity and Manipulation Under Anesthesia, his expertise is sports rehabilitation has helped hundreds of injured athletes regain their strength and flexibility without surgery.

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