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Anyone who has quit chronic drinking will attest that alcohol withdrawal causes many uncomfortable symptoms. One of the most commonly mentioned is a persistent headache. If you or someone you care about is experiencing an alcohol withdrawal headache, read on to learn more about why it happens, how long it will last, and what you can do to relieve the discomfort.

Why do alcohol withdrawal headaches occur?

Alcohol affects many different body systems through its depressant properties. From cognitive function to motor skills, your entire body experiences the effects. Because alcohol suppresses the brain’s normal functions, higher-than-normal amounts of chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine must be released to compensate for this “dampening.”

It has been observed that symptoms are directly related to the central nervous system (CNS). These symptoms develop when the CNS is no longer consistently exposed in the absence of alcohol consumption. The lack of exposure causes “glitches” until the nervous system has had time to heal and reset itself for normal functioning.

Once the alcohol level has been decreased in your system (either from a drastic reduction of intake or complete cessation), your body will continue to overproduce chemicals until your central nervous system and metabolism adjust to the new “norm” in the absence of alcohol.

Is a headache an uncommon alcohol withdrawal symptom?

Your head is splitting and has you fumbling for relief in the early stages of alcohol withdrawal; you’re not alone. Headaches are one of the first and most common withdrawal symptoms and usually start within a few hours of consuming your last drink.

A withdrawal headache can range in intensity from a dull ache to throbbing to extreme, debilitating migraine-like pain.

While it may feel terrible, your headache is a sign that your body is trying to readjust. However, as with any physical symptoms related to withdrawal, it is wise to consult with your doctor or another healthcare professional to ensure there isn’t any other underlying problem.

Detox doesn’t need to be a lonely, scary process. Here at Olympus Recovery, you will find the help and support you need to transition to sobriety. Give us a call at (866) 305-7134 today to speak with one of our caring and compassionate recovery professionals.

Is an alcohol withdrawal headache dangerous?

Many people worry about the headaches they develop shortly after they stop drinking. While an alcohol withdrawal headache is not dangerous, it signals your body’s elimination of alcohol from your system. The absence of alcohol throws your system into a tailspin — a substance that has been regularly present (and usually in significant amounts) has been removed.

What other symptoms might accompany an alcohol withdrawal headache?

Everyone experiences withdrawal from alcohol differently. The duration and intensity of the withdrawal symptoms will depend on several factors. These include the amount of alcohol consumed daily, other underlying health issues and whether or not additional substances were being used simultaneously.

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Alt text: woman in white coat takes patient’s blood pressure

Other common symptoms in the early withdrawal stages can include:

  • Anxiety
  • Tremors
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Insomnia
  • Elevated body temperature
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Sensitivity to light and sound
  • Dilated pupils

What are some less common side effects that might accompany a withdrawal headache?

Some people have more intense and extreme symptoms that appear as they progress through their detox. These side effects should not be ignored or considered a “normal” part of withdrawal. One of the most dangerous, delirium tremens (often known as “the DTs”), is a side effect that signals a severe withdrawal reaction.

Delirium tremens cause the autonomic system to go into overdrive, accompanied by intense confusion, excessive sweating, seizures, hallucinations, and fluctuations in blood pressure. Delirium tremens should be treated as an emergency, as it frequently causes cardiac collapse. An estimated 37 percent of people who experience delirium tremens will die from the cardiac implications if they do not have proper treatment. Delirium tremens should not be confused with the minor tremors that many experience.

Seizures are another symptom that can have major health consequences. The majority of seizures associated with alcohol withdrawal (90 percent) happen within the first 48 hours after drinking has ceased. Less than 3 percent of seizures will occur between days 5 and 20 following consumption of the last drink. These seizures may increase in severity and can eventually lead to significant brain damage or death if not carefully monitored and treated.

Withdrawal should be clinically managed by an experienced medical provider, as the more severe side effects can be harmful or even fatal.

How long will headaches from alcohol withdrawal last?

The intensity of the headaches you experience may have you wondering how long they may last. The good news is that most people who develop them during withdrawal notice a significant decrease by the second or third week of detox.

Research has shown a link between the duration and intensity of symptoms and the amount of alcohol consumed. This means that for those drinking large amounts daily, the symptoms (including headaches) may be more intense and last longer than for those consuming smaller amounts.

In some cases, a condition known as post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS) occurs. PAWS sufferers will continue to have symptoms even after detoxification and treatment. Headaches are often present, along with other complaints such as irritability, memory problems, anxiety and depression.

How do I treat the discomfort from a withdrawal headache?

There is no magic bullet for alleviating all of the symptoms of withdrawal, but there are things you can do to help lessen the intensity and discomfort they cause.

First off, talk to your doctor about their recommendations for symptom relief. Medications such as benzodiazepines and anti-anxiety drugs are used to address the agitation, irritability and anxiety that can increase tension and intensify your headaches.

Over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen should be taken only under the advice and care of your doctor. Your filtering organs (kidneys and liver, primarily) are working overtime to clear out toxins. Many over-the-counter medications can impact your liver or kidneys and lead to further problems.

In general, headaches respond well to proper hydration. Headaches from withdrawal are no exception. Unfortunately, many adults are chronically dehydrated and don’t even realize it. Dehydration makes it more difficult for your excretory organs to function properly; organ health is of the utmost importance during withdrawal.

Depending on your health status and underlying conditions, you may need to modify your water intake. Your doctor can help you determine the optimal amount of water you should drink daily and whether you need to supplement with electrolytes.

Moderate exercise is a great way to increase blood flow and respiration, improving oxygen delivery to your brain. For example, a brisk walk or swim will help to keep your muscles toned while also moving toxins out of your body.

Diet can also play a big part in decreasing the intensity of headaches. Foods containing high levels of refined sugars are major culprits in draining your energy and increasing dehydration. Sugar overload can also cause glucose spikes that are often responsible for headaches. A diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, proteins and lots of clean water will improve energy levels while regulating blood sugar.

The road to recovery doesn’t have to be traveled alone. You can find the individualized help you need here at Olympus Recovery. Give us a call today at 866-305-7134 to learn more about how we can help you on your journey to health and sobriety.

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