Decreasing painkiller use lowers symptoms of depression and anxiety

March 6, 2015 - 06:25

Reducing painkiller consumption reduces pain and symptoms of depression and anxiety, new research shows.

If you take painkillers more than 10 times a month due to headaches you risk making your pain even worse. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Many people take so many painkillers in an attempt to relieve a chronic headache that all they do is make their condition worse. In fact, the overconsumption of painkillers causes such intense pain that it leads to symptoms of depression and anxiety.

A new study has demonstrated how patients with chronic headaches who take too many painkillers, can reduce these symptoms, if they lower their consumption of painkillers.

"This is really important,” says lead-author Lars Bendtsen, an associate professor at the Department of Clinical Medicine at Copenhagen University and the Danish Headache Centre at Glostrup Hospital and Rigshospitalet. “People should know that taking painkillers daily can be harmful, but also that it is possible to get off them again.”

According to Bendtsen, thousands of people would get more out of life if they started reducing their consumption of painkillers.

Painkillers make the pain worse

In the study, Bendtsen and a team of scientists from Chile, Argentina, Italy, Germany, Denmark and Spain examined how 492 patients with an overuse of painkillers, reacted to gradually reducing their consumption over a period of two months.

Before the patients reduced their use of painkillers, the doctors put them through a row of tests to determine how many whole and half days they’d spent off work and how high their score was on a depression and anxiety scale.

Six months later, the doctors performed the same test and compared the figures with the original test.

Ninety per cent of the patients had managed to reduce their intake of painkillers and the results showed that they had 50 per cent fewer days off work and days with reduced working hours, as well as reduced their symptoms of depression by 50 per cent and anxiety by 27 per cent.

This convincing result will hopefully help doctors get even better at treating the many thousands of people suffering from chronic headaches and overconsumption of painkillers, says Professor Fleming W. Bach, department of clinical medicine at Aalborg University.

"From our clinical practice as doctors we know how important it is that patients with chronic headaches don’t take too many painkillers," says Bach. “But because research so far has shed little light on this area it’s important to clarify the significance of gradually reducing consumption -- and how many people can be helped by doing so.”

Over-consumption only affects people with headaches

Heavy consumption of painkillers does not, however, necessarily give everyone a headache.

"Oddly enough it’s only headache patients who get worse headaches as a result of over-consuming painkillers. It doesn’t apply to people with knee pain and such. This is certainly not my experience as a doctor, although this hasn't actually been studied yet," says Bendtsen.

Overconsumption of painkillers appears to bring about changes to the nervous system of people who already suffer from chronic headaches, resulting in them becoming even more sensitive to pain in general, he says.

"When you test the pain threshold of headache patients you see that those who take too many painkillers have a lower threshold. This also means that they suffer more pain to begin with, when they start reducing their medicine consumption. But it’s beneficial in the long term," says Bendtsen.

"The next step is to examine how best to reduce people's overconsumption and which type of medicine provides the best relief while the patients are reducing their consumption," he says.

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Read the original story in Danish on Videnskab.dk

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Translated by
Hugh Matthews