Alternative medicines for headaches

You’re trying to push through that 3 p.m. slump when suddenly you feel it coming on: a painful, distracting headache that just won’t quit. You could pop ibuprofen, aspirin, acetaminophen, or any number of over-the-counter medications to get rid of it, but reaching for the pill bottle more than twice per week can actually make your head pounding worse, according to Lawrence Newman, MD, a neurologist and director of the Headache Division at NYU Langone Health in New York City.

“Just because it doesn’t require a prescription doesn’t mean it’s not a medication,” he says. “It can induce something called medication overuse headaches, where too much medication actually induces more frequent headaches and makes the patient resistant to other treatments.”

Before you run out to the pharmacy, a number of at-home remedies can help get rid of both run-of-the-mill tension headaches and more serious migraines. Just take note that you should always see a doctor if you’re experiencing headaches once per week or more, or if they’re occurring with certain red flags (more on that below). With that in mind, here’s what you can do at home to prevent and reduce headaches:

1. Rethink your sleep schedule.

To prevent migraines, Dr. Newman tells his patients to follow the mnemonic SEEDS: sleep, eating, exercise, drinking, and stress reduction. “The gene for migraines gives us basically a hyperactive or overly sensitive brain,” he says. “Because of that, any change can induce migraines.”

For example, sleeping too much or too little can induce migraines, but keeping a more regular routine can help with occasional headaches, too.

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“Tension-type headaches are different than migraines in that they’re not as severe; they don’t have the nausea, vomiting, and light, sound, and smell sensitivities,” Dr. Newman says. “But those healthy lifestyle tips work for any type.”

In any case, that means avoiding sleeping in on the weekends or vacations (sorry!) and sticking to a consistent bedtime and wake time.

2. Eat regular meals every day.

If you’re not already eating breakfast, now’s the time to start. Fueling your body from sunup to sundown can also help keep headaches at bay. “If you can’t have three meals a day, at least have small, healthy snacks like almonds or raisins throughout the course of the day,” Dr. Newman advises.

3. Hit the gym.

Working out with a pounding head doesn’t exactly sound ideal, but hear this out: “Exercise can help because exercise releases endorphins, which are natural pain killers,” Dr. Newman explains.

Shoot for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise for week, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services advises. That can include walking, swimming, biking, jogging, or your favorite heart-pumping class at the gym.

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4. Stay well hydrated.

Dehydration is a known trigger of migraines, Dr. Newman says, so make sure you’re sipping enough water.

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Most of us need to drink at least eight cups per day, advises Jaclyn London, MS, RD, CDN, Nutrition Director at the Good Housekeeping Institute, and that number goes up when you factor in heat, sweat, medications, and humidity shifts.

“If you’re sleeping, you’re (presumably) not drinking, so it’s likely that you’re waking up in a state of subclinical dehydration,” she says. “Start your day with a little refreshment in the form of 16 ounces of water — right away. Keeping a 16-ounce container of water on your nightstand or putting out a glass before bed to fill in your kitchen in the morning helps.”

5. Keep stress in check.

A progressive muscle relaxation exercise can help unclench tensed muscles contributing to your headache, says Noah Rosen, MD, Director of Northwell Health’s Headache Center in Great Neck, New York. Here’s how to do it, according to the Cleveland Clinic:

  1. Focus your mind a specific muscle group, like the ones in your hand. Inhale and squeeze, making a tight fist, as hard as you can for about 8 seconds.
  2. Release the tension by exhaling and quickly opening your hand. Feel the muscles relax and the tension subside.
  3. Repeat with different muscle groups in your body, starting in your feet and moving up all the way to your face.

Mindfulness techniques like guided imagery may also help you take your mind off the pain. “By finding a way to teach someone not to attend to the problem, it can reduce the impact,” Dr. Rosen explains.

6. Drink some coffee.

If you usually down a few cups each morning and you’ve missed out this A.M., that’s the likely culprit behind your pain.

“There’s good evidence that if you do drink caffeine, you need to stay stable on the dose because reducing significantly can precipitate a withdrawal headache,” Dr. Rosen says. Since drinking too many caffeinated beverages can cause headaches in some people, try to average less than 150 milligrams of caffeine per day (about two 8-ounce cups of coffee), he adds.

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7. Reach for an ice pack or hot pack.

Which one you prefer is up to you, but they both can help with migraines and headaches. “Ice packs work because they basically numb the area,” Dr. Newman says. “Hot packs work because they increase the blood flow to that area.” If you’re at home, try stepping in the shower and letting the warm water hit your head.

8. Get a massage.

With tension-type headaches, some people also experience increased muscle tension, so releasing the trigger points could help, Dr. Newman says. “Have your significant other or friend press on the trapezius muscles in your shoulders,” he advises. Pressing on the temple areas or over the ears can also help relieve bands of tight muscles.

9. Seek out a dark, quiet room.

“One of the core symptoms of migraines is photosensitivity,” Dr. Rosen says. “Light and noise can be directly impairing.” Distancing yourself from whatever’s exacerbating your pain can help you get back to 100% faster. If you can’t get away, try closing your eyes and relaxing for a moment.

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10. Take a break from screens.

One of the most common symptoms associated with Computer Vision Syndrome or Digital Eye Strain is headaches, the American Optometric Association states. Whether it’s a computer, cell phone, or tablet, just scrolling up and down can trigger headaches in some people, Dr. Newman says. To prevent discomfort, the AOA recommends following what’s called the 20-20-20 rule: Take a 20 second break to view something 20 feet away every 20 minutes.

11. Try a vitamin B2 supplement.

“High doses of vitamin B2 have been shown to decrease migraines,” Dr. Newman says. Taking 400 mg per day of the nutrient — also called riboflavin — had a positive effect on adult migraine patients, according to 2017 review in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics.

12. Keep a diary to identify triggers.

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Not only can a journal help you track symptoms that signal the onset of a headache or migraine, but it may also reveal the foods and drinks that trigger them. The specific culprits can vary from patient to patient, but aged cheeses, MSG-containing foods, and artificial sweeteners are a few common ones. Dark alcohols like red wine, whiskey, bourbon are also more likely to cause migraines than white wine, gin, or vodka, Dr. Newman says.

When to See a Doctor About Headaches

Don’t power through regular head pain solo. See a doctor if you’re experiencing headaches once per week or more or if they interfere with your everyday life. Not only can healthcare providers prescribe you medication, but they can identify a potential underlying medical condition. Major red flags include:

  • Headaches with an explosive onset (“thunderclap headaches”)
  • Headaches that come on during certain activities (e.g., weight-lifting, coughing, exertion, sex)
  • Headaches with fever or stiff neck
  • Headaches associated with changes in cognition
  • Headaches with weakness or numbness
  • Headaches that start after age 50

Play it safe and always seek out professional help if you have any concern about your health. The American Migraine Foundation offer resources for how to talk to your practitioner about headaches in order to help you find the best plan of action.

Caroline Picard Health Editor Caroline is the Health Editor at covering nutrition, fitness, wellness, and other lifestyle news.

Alternative Medicine as Headache Treatment

Americans spend a lot of time at the doctor’s office looking for headache relief. Headaches account for more than 8 million doctor visits every year. And many of those headaches are chronic — occurring more than 15 days per month, for longer than three months.

Some headaches are migraines, and others are commonly caused by tension or neck pain.

Although headache treatment often involves taking pain pills, this type of relief carries with it the risk of side effects, rebound headaches (headaches brought on by taking too much medication), and addiction (like opioids, or narcotics). Some headache medication also has limited use for pregnant women and children. Consequently, many doctors and headache patients have become interested in alternative headache treatment.

Alternative Medicine for Headache Relief

According to Ellen Drexler, MD, director of the headache center at Maimonides Medical Center in New York City, “Avoidance or management of stress, relaxation exercises, yoga, meditation, and other alternative medicine treatments can certainly be effective for many people, since stress is such a common headache trigger.”

According to guidelines published by the National Headache Foundation (NHF), once you have an accurate headache diagnosis and have been assured that your pain is not related to any other serious condition, your headache treatment can be improved by the addition of alternative therapies.

  • Hands-on approach. Massage, chiropractic, physical therapy, and the application of hot and cold compresses are alternative medical treatments used to relieve chronic headaches. Although these therapies are difficult to study in clinical trials, they have been effective for some patients. Massage therapy may be particularly helpful for relieving stress and muscle tension-related headaches.
  • Sound body, sound mind. The benefits of exercise include better sleep, and routine exercise may also increase your brain’s ability to regulate pain. The NHF guidelines encourage regular exercise as part of a headache treatment plan. For example, yoga combines physical poses with relaxation, meditation, and breathing techniques. Yoga exercises may be useful in the prevention and treatment of headaches by reducing stress as well as improving the circulation and supply of oxygen to your brain and muscles.
  • Herbal treatments. Some people think that herbal remedies are safer than prescription medication. However, it’s important to remember that commercially available formulations of these remedies generally have no official oversight, and some of them do have side effects. Two herbal remedies that have been found to be safe and effective by the NHF are feverfew and butterbur root extract. Feverfew, a European flower, has been shown to be somewhat effective for treating migraines and very safe in two clinical trials; butterbur root also passed two trials for safety and effectiveness in headache treatment. Ginger is receiving attention as a migraine treatment because it has some antihistamine and anti-inflammatory properties, although more research needs to be done.
  • Mind-body techniques. Relaxation training, shown to be effective in relieving tension headaches, involves progressive muscle relaxation combined with breathing exercises or guided imagery. Relaxation training often works well with biofeedback — the use of equipment to train a person to control certain body functions like muscle tension, temperature, and brain activity in order to reduce stress and alleviate pain. The combination is useful in migraine headache treatment for children and adults.
  • Acupuncture. Studies show that some patients experience significant pain relief from the ancient Chinese therapy of acupuncture, which follows the theory of regulating how your “qi,” or vital energy, flows. Some evidence indicates that acupuncture works by releasing endorphins, brain chemicals that relieve stress and pain, in the brain. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine is sponsoring additional research on the connection between acupuncture and pain relief, including headache.
  • Botox. Botox (botuloinum toxin type A) causes paralysis of muscles and is responsible for the paralysis seen in botulism poisoning. Botox was first approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1989 to treat facial spasms and then, in 2002, for the treatment of wrinkles. One of the unexpected side effects was relief from chronic headache pain. As a headache treatment, Botox is injected into muscles of the head and neck, and studies show that it can relieve headache pain for about three months.

Getting Started With Alternative Medicine for Headache

Remember that not all alternative medicines have been studied adequately. “The data on the effectiveness of these approaches are mixed. One obstacle is patient motivation and persistence in using these techniques,” warns Dr. Drexler.

Drexler says that patients should keep in mind that making lifestyle changes can help relieve their headache symptoms. These changes might include:

  • Getting adequate sleep at the same time each day
  • Eating regular meals
  • Staying well hydrated
  • Getting regular aerobic exercise
  • Avoiding caffeine and alcohol

If you are considering any alternative medicine for headache treatment, always talk to your doctor first. Make sure no other treatable health conditions are causing your headaches and that an alternative therapy will not negatively interact with any medication you may be taking.

Alternative Treatments for Migraines and Headaches

Massage, and Acupuncture to Ease Migraine and Headache Symptoms

By Julie M. Gentile Reviewed By Lawrence Robbins, MD

Whether you have cluster headaches, tension headaches, or migraines, alternative treatments—from acupuncture to massage—can help you deal with migraine and headache symptoms.

The 4 treatments listed below are considered complementary and alternative medicine treatments, which means that they’re not part of mainstream medicine. Complementary treatments are used with traditional treatments (eg, prescription medications), while alternative treatments are used in place of traditional treatments.

More In-depth Migraine and Headache Treatment Articles

  • Medications
  • Preventive Medications: Stopping Migraines Before They Start
  • Exercise when You Have Chronic Migraines: Is It Possible?

Acupuncture for Migraines and Headaches
Acupuncture—an ancient Chinese technique—uses very fine needles (about as thin as a strand of hair) to help reduce the frequency and intensity of chronic migraines and/or headaches. These needles get inserted into specific points on your body to promote a healthy flow of Qi (also called Chi), which is your energy force.

The needles typically remain in your body for 20 to 40 minutes. You’ll probably need to have regular acupuncture sessions to experience the most benefit, so work with an acupuncturist who you feel comfortable with and who has experience treating people who have chronic migraines and headaches.

Acupuncture may also be beneficial because experts think that because it can help release endorphins (“feel-good” hormones created by your brain), it can reduce your sensitivity to pain.

Biofeedback for Migraines and Headaches
With biofeedback, you learn how your body reacts to stress via a machine that can measure physical stress markers, such as heart rate and muscle tension.

By becoming more aware of how stress impacts your body and your pain, biofeedback teaches you how to control your body’s natural reaction to stressors.

For example, if you’re stressed because you’re stuck in a traffic jam and you feel a migraine or tension headache coming on, you can use the techniques you learned in biofeedback to reduce your body’s response to the stressor.

Massage for Migraines and Headaches
There are many of types of massage that can help you manage migraines and headaches. Your certified massage therapist will work to find the right massage for you.

He or she will focus on head, neck, shoulder, and upper back muscles to ease your pain and reduce other symptoms.

Regular massage is a safe and effective treatment for migraines and headaches: It promotes deep relaxation and can help decrease stress and head pain.

Supplements for Migraines and Headaches
The herbs and dietary supplements below may help reduce the severity or frequency of migraine and headache symptoms. But as always, check with your doctor before taking them because they may interact with other medications or supplements you’re taking.

  • Coenzyme Q10
  • Feverfew and butterbur (but do not use these if you’re pregnant)
  • Magnesium
  • Riboflavin (vitamin B2)

Have a conversation with your doctor before trying any of these alternative treatments for migraines and/or headaches. You may need to include a combination of mainstream treatments and alternative treatments into your overall treatment plan for migraines and/or headaches.

Updated on: 11/19/15 View Sources


Continue Reading: Exercise Tips for Migraines and Headaches

Complementary and integrative medicine in the management of headache


Headaches, including primary headaches such as migraine and tension-type headache, are a common clinical problem. Complementary and integrative medicine (CIM), formerly known as complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), uses evidence informed modalities to assist in the health and healing of patients. CIM commonly includes the use of nutrition, movement practices, manual therapy, traditional Chinese medicine, and mind-body strategies. This review summarizes the literature on the use of CIM for primary headache and is based on five meta-analyses, seven systematic reviews, and 34 randomized controlled trials (RCTs). The overall quality of the evidence for CIM in headache management is generally low and occasionally moderate. Available evidence suggests that traditional Chinese medicine including acupuncture, massage, yoga, biofeedback, and meditation have a positive effect on migraine and tension headaches. Spinal manipulation, chiropractic care, some supplements and botanicals, diet alteration, and hydrotherapy may also be beneficial in migraine headache. CIM has not been studied or it is not effective for cluster headache. Further research is needed to determine the most effective role for CIM in patients with headache.

Alternative and Complementary Medicine for Migraine and Cluster Headaches

Alternative Therapies: Spinal Manipulation

Spinal manipulation has been well documented within the writings of Hippocrates and the traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) literature. In Western society, spinal manipulation began in the late 19th century with the development of osteopathic medicine by a frontier doctor named Andrew Taylor Still, MD. This school of medicine, as he developed it, began in 1874. Today, it has trained osteopathic physicians who can be board-certified in all of the medical and surgical subspecialties recognized in the United States. Osteopathic physicians are physicians who, in addition to traditional medical and surgical approaches, use osteopathic principles and practice in the management of their patients. Part of their philosophical approach is to recognize that structure and function are interrelated, and their practice includes the judicious use of osteopathic manipulative medicine. These varied techniques attempt to normalize problems within the musculoskeletal system, thereby improving the body’s balance.

Another form of manipulation was developed in 1895 by David Daniel Palmer, a local magnetic healer, and a student of Dr Still’s. Palmer termed his healing art “chiropractic”, from the Greek words chiro and praktikos, meaning “done by hand”. Chiropractors are not physicians in the traditional sense of the term. They do not practice medicine or surgery. They do not prescribe medications. Chiropractors treat misalignments, or subluxations, within the spinal column that they believe cause problems within the nervous system, thereby leading to disease. Chiropractors treat these subluxations with manipulation of the spine and may use adjunctive therapies such as heat, electrical stimulation, and ultrasound.

Both of these approaches grew and developed their own systems of accreditation. Most patients who receive manipulation today are treated by one of these two groups of practitioners.

The public tends to have a narrow concept of manipulation. High-velocity, low-amplitude techniques, typically referred to by lay persons receiving manipulation as having my “neck cracked,” is the most common perception of cervical manipulative techniques. In fact, within both schools of manipulation, this is far from the truth. The thrusting technique (high-velocity, low-amplitude manipulations) is only one form of therapy that may be used. Other manipulative techniques, such as myofascial release, strain/counterstrain, and muscle energy techniques, may be used instead of the common thrusting procedures. These techniques tend to focus on soft tissue structures.

Patients seeking any form of manipulation should do their homework on the proposed providers and techniques used in order to find competent practitioners capable of performing such procedures as safely as possible. The risks and benefits must be clearly discussed. A patient must evaluate any practitioner who would attempt manipulation carefully, just as one chooses their surgeon carefully.

Note that no clear study findings within peer-reviewed, evidence-based literature demonstrate that the use of cervical manipulation has any long-lasting effect on the management of migraine or cluster headaches. In addition, the procedure is not without risk. Reports in the medical literature confirm that, although rare, stroke may be a complication of thrusting procedures.

Throughout my journey, I’ve tried massage therapy, dry needling, natural supplements, biofeedback, chiropractic, meditation, and more. Yoga is the one self-healing measure I have found the most comfort in. It gives me the greatest relief, energizes my soul, and challenges me the most.

Taking the Yoga Practice with You

At the end of my favorite yoga class on Sunday nights, my yogi says, “Take the support from this group into the rest of your evening and take this practice with you throughout your week.” Yoga doesn’t just live on the mat in a class; it can guide you through your day. It’s taken years of diligent practice to find what “taking your practice with you” means to me.

I practiced Bikram yoga, or hot yoga, for years. It helped me during a difficult time in my life. When my migraine disease became chronic, any form of yoga seemed impossible. Actually walking down the street seemed impossible.

Looking back, it made perfect sense to get out of bed and get on my mat. My muscles were always in a constant state of fatigue, which only contributed to my pain. I needed to open up my body and my heart center. Yet all I could focus on was working and sleeping. I was in survival mode.

When my doctor suggested I go on short-term disability, I decided to make exercise a priority. I felt weak. I had no control over my body. It was something my athletic boyfriend had been urging me to do as well. I enlisted the help of a trainer, who had no knowledge of my condition, but who researched workouts and modifications that would help me succeed and not incite a migraine.

Baby Steps Are Worth It

Some days, I felt I was making progress … baby steps towards endurance. Then I would have a setback, losing weeks of work to being confined to bed. When I returned to the gym, I felt like I was starting all over again. Frustration does not even begin to explain the defeat I felt.

After a year of weekly training sessions, I felt brave enough to step onto my mat in a classroom. I told the yogi about my health issues and limitations; I wasn’t sure I could endure an hour-long class. She told me she would give me modifications, but the most important thing was just to stay in the room for the entirety of the class, which I did!

I had put so much pressure on myself to be able to gracefully transition between poses or hold my gaze steady while balancing on one foot. But that wasn’t where I was yet, and I had to learn to give myself some slack. No one was looking at me, no one was judging me … except myself.

Each class was a crapshoot, never knowing if stretching out my body would be healing or hurtful. With each session, I learned something new about the practice and about my body. Eventually, I felt more in tune with what my body was trying to tell me—I had just never stopped to listen before. I could no longer ignore the signals that screamed for me to eat more regularly, drink more water, or stretch out my body.

Taking Yoga Off the Mat and Into Your Life

Over time, I learned that returning to the fundamentals of yoga could help me daily.

In yoga, your breath is connected to every move you make. For example, breathe in while you bring your arms up, touching the palms above your head. Breathe out while releasing the arms and moving them down to the sides of your body. This connection of breath and movement takes practice, but I found it helped me in my daily life. When giving myself a shot of Toradol, I breathe in and insert the needle and breathe out when I inject the medicine.

It might sound silly, but focusing on the breath can help me to ignore the pain of receiving the injection. That is just one way that I take my yoga practice off my mat and into my week.

When I notice that my balance is off, I’ll work on certain poses that challenge my balance, such as tree pose. To just gain a quick boost of energy, I will do an easy sun salutation. I have no shame in doing yoga wherever I am and whenever I need it. The airport is definitely a place where my weary body yells at me to pay attention to it. These are other ways in which I integrate yoga into my daily life.

Consistency Brings Results

A 2014 study assigned migraine participants to either a conventional care group, or a yoga group that practiced five days a weeks for six weeks, along with their conventional care.

At the end of the study, the yoga group reported greater improvement in the intensity and frequency of their migraine attacks compared to the conventional care group.

Movement, even in the most basic form, can become difficult for those with chronic pain. I encourage everyone to explore yoga. That could mean learning simple stretching techniques, finding a way to connect your breath with movement, or letting go of your inhibitions and attending a class.

Don’t have money for a class? No problem. There are many free classes available online. I personally use “Yoga with Adriene” on YouTube. From the fundamentals to upper level poses, her style is easy to follow.

Yoga may not be a cure, but the fundamentals could help you feel more in control of your body.

Other CAM options:

  • Massage Therapy: Massage therapy can include multiple techniques like Swedish, deep tissue, Shiatsu, Thai, myofascial trigger point, and hot or cold stone. One study showed that those who received 12 myofascial trigger point massages during a six-week period, instead of ultrasound, reported the highest positive change in headache frequency, perceived headache pain, and greater improvement in their pressure-pain threshold.
  • Acupuncture: Acupuncture is likely the oldest form of CAM. Thin needles are placed strategically along one or more of the five meridian lines believed to be necessary in balancing a person’s energy or chi. Needles are inserted into the top layer of skin to increase blood flow and stimulate nerves, muscles and tissues. A 2015 study found that a group of patients who received 16 sessions of acupuncture within a 20-week period reported a positive change in the frequency and intensity of their migraine attacks, as well as an increased pain threshold. At a three-month follow-up, the results were the same, but at 12 months post-treatment, the effects had worn off.
  • Natural Supplements: The following list of over-the-counter supplements or vitamins have been used to treat migraine, either in conjunction with preventative medications or alone. Due to the potential for side effects, your doctor should always be included in decisions to use any of these supplements:
    • Butterbur
    • Vitamins B2, B6, C, D, and E
    • Magnesium
    • Potassium
    • Fish Oil
    • Coenzyme Q10
    • Petadolex
    • Peppermint oil
    • Flax seed
    • Feverfew

Please note: The U.S. Pain Foundation and the INvisible Project do not recommend any specific modalities to treat cluster headache or any other chronic pain condition. Your doctor should be informed of any decisions that vary from your treatment plan.

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