Parenting with migraine: Preventing medication-overuse headache in teens

If you have migraines and you are a parent, it’s possible that one of your children also has migraines.  If both parents have migraines the chances may be increased that their child will have migraines. As a person with migraines, you may have learned that overusing your medication can actually lead to more headaches.

How can you use this experience and knowledge to help your children use their migraine medication correctly during their teenage years, when they want to make decisions for themselves?

One of the first things you can do is refresh your knowledge of what medications-overuse headaches are and why they occur.   Medication-overuse headaches are usually caused by taking medication more frequently than prescribed in order to treat migraine headaches.  This can happen if headaches are so frequent that you are always seeking relief, and nothing else seems to help.  As you take more medication, when it wears off, you get another headache and take more medication, and when that wears off, you can create an endless cycle of headache pain.  Sometimes these are called “rebound” headaches.

Medication overuse is a common cause of headaches that become chronic.  Using headache medications as little as 3 or 4 times per week is sometimes enough to cause medication-overuse headaches in some people.

Treatment for medication-overuse headache involves working with a health care provider to stop or gradually take less medication, or sometimes finding different medications that work effectively once all of the old medication is out of your system.

Teenagers learn how to manage their own medications as they become older, increasingly becoming their own “health managers”, until they eventually become totally responsible for managing their headache medication.

Teens and Medication-Overuse Headaches

While medication-overuse headaches can happen to anyone who uses medication frequently, they may be more likely to occur in teenagers.  Why?  Because teens may be more upset about not being able to have fun with their friends or interact socially, which can be very important to them. In turn, they may take the medication as frequently as they feel they need to in order to stop a headache. As a result, teens may be more prone to becoming frustrated, discouraged, and even depressed by their migraine headaches.

For many teens the realization that migraines may be with them for the rest of their life can be overwhelming.  Because teens have less well-developed coping skills, they may have a harder time accepting long-term management of a chronic health condition.  This can set the stage for medication-overuse.

When your teen is prescribed medication for headaches, take the time to discuss the medication safety information that comes with it.  Check to make sure that your child understands how to use the medication as prescribed, including:

• Under what circumstances it should be used
• How often it should be taken
• What precautions to take while using the medication

Also, teach your teen to keep track of medication use by writing down each time they take medication, the amount they take, and the effect it has.

Medication-overuse headaches can be caused by prescription pain medications, over-the-counter pain relievers, or by a combination of medications.  While all such medications have the potential to cause medication-overuse headaches, the problem does seem to occur more frequently with medications containing barbiturates and migraine-specific medicines called triptans.

Educating for Medication Safety

Educating your teen about managing their medication to avoid medication-overuse headaches is just as important as teaching other medication safety lessons.  As your teenager begins to become more responsible for managing and carrying their own migraine medication, you will also want to teach them not to share their medication with others (even friends who seem like they need it), and how to store their medication securely so that it can’t get lost or stolen easily.