Building Up a Tolerance to Pain Medication

Welcome to blistering headache, day two. My whopper of a headache hung around for most of the day, and came back for a second visit this morning.

Nothing says “great start to a day” like a headache.

I did get some relief last night when I switched from ibuprofen to aspirin, and I think it was the change in medications that made the difference. I do tend to switch pain relievers every so often. Maybe the ibuprofen wasn’t helping because my body was too used to it?

With some pain relievers, your body can build up a tolerance — meaning you’ll need an increasing dose in order to get the same relief you used to get. Rather than overload my body with medication, I’d rather just swap painkillers now and then. I happen to have a first aid kit that includes acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and aspirin, so a “fresh” choice is always at hand.

Developing a tolerance to a pain medication is a common occurrence. Tolerance simply means that the initial dose level becomes less effective over time. It is normal in some circumstances to need higher doses or different medications to get the same level of pain relief.

With prescription painkillers, you may be concerned about developing an addiction or physical dependence. Drugs that are opioids (medications that have a similar effect to morphine) have a higher risk of addiction than other pain medications. Most people who take pain medicine as directed by a doctor do not become addicted — even if they use the medication for a long time.

However, you may be at risk for addiction if:

  • You have been addicted to medical substances in the past
  • You have been addicted to drugs or alcohol in the past
  • You have a family history of addiction

The key to avoiding addiction is to take your medication EXACTLY as it is prescribed. Talk to your doctor about your family history (especially if you or someone in your family has had a problem with addiction). Your doctor will use this information to help choose the best, safest pain medication for you.