Managing Medications

ADHD Medications and Headaches

Q: “I’ve tried Vyvanse, Concerta, and Focalin for my adult ADHD, but they all give me headaches. What can I do about this?”

Man sitting on the couch, frustrated with his daughter's IEP problems
ADHD Handsome man sitting on sofa with big headache

There are two types of headaches associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD) medications — whether they’re used to treat ADHD or not. The mild headache in the back of the head that occurs at the end of the dose is a mild rebound phenomenon. It can be relieved with aspirin or Tylenol, or you can take another dose of stimulant medication before bedtime so that the headache occurs while you are asleep.

The second type of headache is much more severe and often causes the patient to stop taking the medication, as in your case. Patients complain of a “whole head” headache that lasts all the way through the dose — and sometimes for several hours after the dose has worn off. Almost always, patients who suffer from these headaches have either a personal history or a strong family history of vascular headaches or migraines.

Switching from one first-line agent to another — from amphetamine, say, to methylphenidate, or vice versa — can be effective. Obviously, though, this didn’t work in your case. While there is no research-based guidance on how to treat this fairly common problem, practitioners find that taking a low dose of a calcium channel blocker an hour before taking the stimulant prevents headaches from occurring in about 95 percent of people.
For reasons that are unclear, more than half of patients who had severe headaches can stop taking the calcium channel blocker after one or two months without the recurrence of headaches.

Talk with your doctor about treatment options for headache relief.