Rare is the person who undergoes drug or alcohol detox without experiencing at least moderate withdrawal symptoms. One of the most common symptoms in detox is headache. This is true across most categories and drugs. A detox headache, as uncomfortable as it might be, is good inasmuch as it is evidence that your body is withdrawing.
In most cases, a detox headache is not a medical emergency. However, there are times when an especially severe and/or persistent headache could be a symptom of a serious underlying condition. This is why it is so important to seek professional help before attempting any form of detox.
What Are Detox Headaches?
If you have ever researched headaches, you know there are multiple kinds. For example, there are migraine and tension headaches. Both kinds feel different and are caused by different things. A detox headache is a specific kind of headache associated with drug or alcohol withdrawal.
It is important to not confuse these headaches with the headaches people get while on a detoxification diet. Detox diets are not the same thing as drug and alcohol withdrawal. The advice given by detox diet experts to deal with headaches does not apply to drug and alcohol detox.
Detox headaches, for the purposes of this discussion, are those directly caused by drug or alcohol withdrawal. They are rooted in the body’s response to withdrawal.
What Causes the Headaches?
When you use drugs or alcohol, your chosen substance alters brain activity. Some substances are depressants; they slow the brain’s response to stimuli by activating or deactivating certain chemical receptors. Other substances are stimulants; these do just the opposite.
A person who regularly uses an addictive substance for a given period of time – it could be a few weeks to several months depending on the substance – develops a tolerance for it. That means the body learns to adapt to having that substance in the system. Stopping the use of that substance is a shock to the body. It is this that causes detox headaches.
If you were addicted to a stimulant, stopping would force your body to adapt to a less stimulated nervous system. If you were addicted to a depressant, your body would suddenly have to adapt to a more active nervous system. Both scenarios trigger headaches.
How Long Do Detox Headaches Last?
Unfortunately, there is no black-and-white answer to this question. Depending on the substance being withdrawn from, a headache can begin at any point on the first or second day. From there, it will persist depending on how your body reacts to withdrawal.
For most people, a detox headache persists for days once it starts. The severity tends to increase until the person reaches peak withdrawal symptoms, usually around the fourth day, before gradually subsiding. Headaches can totally disappear within 7 to 14 days providing there are no unusual complications.
There are cases in which a person might go into prolonged withdrawal, a circumstance in which withdrawal takes longer than 14 days. A person suffering from prolonged withdrawal can continue with the headaches throughout.
Though prolonged withdrawal is rare, the chances of it occurring increase the longer a person uses an addictive substance. If there is any good news in this, it is that headaches do not tend to be constant during prolonged withdrawal. They come and go. Furthermore, they can vary in intensity.
How Do You Get Rid of a Detox Headache?
It is fairly common to reach for the medicine cabinet to deal with a headache. Analgesics like aspirin and ibuprofen are typical headache medications. However, these may not be the right choice while detoxing from drugs or alcohol. Why? Because analgesics could cause more severe problems.
For example, if you take an analgesic while you still have alcohol in your system, the combination of the two could make you ill. You do not need anything extra to deal with in the middle of detox. Aside from that, analgesics are known to cause rebound headaches.
A rebound headache is exactly what its name implies. It occurs as a result of using the analgesic. In other words, a few ibuprofens could offer temporary relief from a detox headache. But once the effects of the ibuprofen wear off, the underlying cause of the headache is still there. A new and more severe headache can then set in.
Rather than using analgesics, it might be better to try more natural remedies. Essential oils like peppermint and lavender are said to help relieve headache pain when used correctly. Green tea and ginger are also recommended. And of course, drink plenty of water. Dehydration during detox is one of the chief contributors to the detox headache.
Finally, meditation and breathing exercises can help relieve both headache and anxiety during detox. They can also help manage the other symptoms as well.