Chemotherapy Headache

Chemotherapy headache is very common in cancer patients, although the chemo itself is not always the cause, or only cause, of the pain. Today we’re going to take a look at what may cause the headaches, and what you can do to fight them.

Chemotherapy and headachesIf you’re experiencing headaches during or after chemotherapy, you probably don’t need to be told that your body is already going through a lot of unwelcome changes. There are a huge number of things that can lead to head pain – the chemotherapy itself, other medications (including “painkillers”!) that you take along with the chemo, the cancer itself, changes in schedule and eating habits, and the many other changes that are happening in your body that are directly or indirectly related to your treatment.

In light of this reality of chemotherapy headaches, here are some important things to remember:

  1. Always mention headaches, related symptoms, and especially any changes in your headache symptoms, to your doctor. Do not assume that this is just another symptom you just have to “live with”. Even if the headaches are temporary (and will go away after the treatment is over), there are may be things you and your doctor can do to alleviate the pain. And alleviating the pain may help your overall treatment be more effective. But some headaches can be signs of ongoing and serious problems that need more attention.
  2. Pay attention to the timing and intensity of the pain, and any related symptoms. It can be hard to keep track when you already feel so tired and sick, but if you notice anything it can help your doctor diagnose your pain. For example, are headaches waking you up in the night? Are they worse in the morning? Is nausea worse when the headache is present? Any clues might help you find a good treatment.
  3. Make sure your doctor knows your headache history. Have you been prone to migraine attacks in past years? Or regular, mild tension-type headaches?

Chemotherapy headache, and this includes chemotherapy and migraine headaches (and other migraine symptoms) can be difficult to treat. You may or may not be able to conquer all the pain, but there are some things that you and your doctor might want to consider:

  • Stay Hydrated. If you’ve been told to drink more water and you’re having trouble getting it down, you’re not alone. But drinking lots of water has helped some people lessen their headaches. If you can’t drink much water, but find other liquids more appealing, talk to your doctor. She can help you choose something that will be easier for you to drink. Another option is to drink one thing, and then something else, rather than sticking to one thing all the time.
  • Adjusting medications. Medications may trigger headaches during chemo treatment. This may be nausea medication (such as ondansetron (Zofran)), or the chemo drugs themselves. Your doctor might be able to adjust the level of your chemo drugs, or give you a different medication for nausea, for example. Even “painkillers” may lead to more headaches. If the dosis isn’t right for you, for example, a drug treating the pain may start “rebound headaches” – as if your body is starting to ask for more and more of the drug. Adjusting the dose, changing the medication, or even alternating meds, may help.
  • Fighting chemo headache with medication. Taking any extra medication during chemo is common, but as you probably know, it’s a tricky balance. Your doctor will want to avoid NSAIDs (like ibuprofen or aspirin), but might want to try paracetamol/acetaminophen, or a prescription medication.
  • Keep a regular “schedule” as much as you can. Those with migraine often find changes to schedule and meals especially difficult, and there’s only so much you can do about it. But if you can try to eat/sleep/wake up/take a short walk at a more regular time, it might help lessen the headache pain.
  • Complimentary treatment. As with medications, complimentary treatments will vary depending on the patient. A cold compress or ice pack in a towel may help some people, but it may or may not help you. But it’s worth a try. Two options that may be helpful include the ICEKAP and the ThermaZone Continuous Thermal Therapy Device. Massage can also help. A warm foot bath, or foot massage, may also help alleviate headache symptoms.

It can be overwhelming juggling many symptoms and treatments at the same time. But if you can lessen your chemotherapy headache, it can help your overall treatment. If you’ve experienced chemotherapy headache and have found something that helped, leave a comment!

More about chemotherapy headache and cancer related headache from the American Society of Clinical Oncology here.

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