What are some alternative therapies for headaches?

A range of alternative remedies can reduce the frequency, intensity, or duration of your headaches. Some—like avoiding triggers, trying herbal supplements, and using certain mind-body techniques such as yoga or meditation—you can do on your own. Others, like acupuncture or physical therapy, require you to seek out a specialist.

Two types of biofeedback are commonly used to manage headaches: surface electromyography, which measures electrical activity in a muscle via electrodes placed on the skin, and thermal biofeedback, which measures finger temperature. Biofeedback involves using a machine to monitor body functioning, as indicated by finger temperature or electrical activity in muscles. Biofeedback should be undertaken only with the help of a skilled professional. It's not wise to pick someone out of the phone book or to acquire biofeedback equipment through magazine advertisements or mail-order catalogs. Biofeedback works best as an element of a treatment plan that includes medication.

A heating pad applied daily can relax tense muscles in your neck and shoulders and help prevent headaches. Taking a hot shower or bath can also help. A cold pack can constrict blood vessels and ease the pain of a headache already in progress, and it can be especially helpful for throbbing temples. Massage, when performed by a licensed massage therapist, can loosen tight muscles.

However, be aware that certain techniques can worsen headaches and are best avoided. For instance, although gentle massage can provide headache relief for some people, a too-firm or aggressive massage can actually bring on a severe headache. Even if these techniques don't provide complete relief, they may enable you to cut back on pain medications. However, check with your health insurance plan before trying any of these therapies, because some may not be covered. You may also want to discuss them with your doctor ahead of time.

Yogi Cameron Alborzian
Alternative & Complementary Medicine Specialist

Headaches have a different root cause for different people, but a major reason for that and other ailments is the fact that we don't breathe in enough oxygen through fast-paced, shallow breathing. As each cell in our body requires oxygen to function properly, less oxygen leads to less healthy cells and less healthy cells leads to tension building in the body in the form of headaches. Humans commonly breathe between 12 and 20 times a minute. For most of us, these breaths are shallow. What is 12 to 20 breaths should actually be under 10.

Many of us, when we hear the word "yoga," think of postures and bending our bodies into many different shapes. Though this is one aspect of yoga, another significant component is work that focuses on the breath.

To practice what is known in the yogic tradition as "the full breath," inhale through the nose so that the belly expands but is not forced out. The chest will then begin to expand as well. Then, exhale through the nose for about twice as long as you inhaled. Gradually incorporate this way of breathing into your moment-to-moment life and you will eventually have a lower and lower incidence of headaches. When a headache does come on, take a moment to stop what you're doing and practice the full breath.

Managing your headaches without medication begins with looking at common headache triggers: stress, certain foods and lack of sleep. Therefore, it is important to decrease your personal stress as much as possible, engage in relaxing activities, eat a healthy diet and try to get plenty of sleep on a regular basis. If symptoms do not improve or there is any new development, see your healthcare provider because the headache could be due to a secondary cause.

Dr. Tieraona Low Dog, MD
General Practitioner

Some natural treatments for acute headaches include using peppermint essential oil, as well as taking various forms of ginger. In this video, I will share some soothing remedies for acute headaches.

Dr. Randy Rosenthal, DC
Chiropractic Medicine Specialist

Chiropractic manipulation therapy can help improve spinal function. A report released in 2001 by researchers at the Duke University Evidence-Based Practice Center in Durham, NC, found that spinal manipulation resulted in almost immediate improvement for those headaches that originate in the neck, and had significantly fewer side effects and longer-lasting relief of tension-type headache than a commonly prescribed medication.

When a manipulation is given to the spine, especially focused on the cervical or neck region, this will send a signal to the nervous system to release tension upon the muscles. Many headaches are caused by tension in the musculature surrounding the upper and lower neck areas. Most tension involving the cervical musculature is caused by improper sleep patterns and improper posture while at work, in the car and at home.

Dr. Dawn Marcus

Non-drug treatments for headache generally help prevent headaches by raising the headache threshold. Soothing manual therapies for some pain problems like headaches include massage, chiropractic manipulation and craniosacral therapy. Few research studies have investigated the benefits from these therapies for specifically treating headaches. Those that have been done do not show enough benefit to recommend these treatments for most headache sufferers. Individuals with substantial muscle pain or spasm in addition to headaches, and those with headaches that are consistently triggered by changes in neck posture or using the neck muscles, may get benefit from manual therapies. Some non-drug treatments, such as relaxation, biofeedback and physical therapy exercises, may also be used to treat an individual headache episode.

In a controlled research study, women who were having difficult headaches during pregnancy were treated with relaxation and biofeedback or a placebo treatment of just spending time with a therapist but not learning any pain management skills. Headache activity decreased by half or more in 73 percent of the women who learned relaxation and biofeedback, but only by 29 percent in those receiving the placebo treatment. This improvement continued throughout pregnancy and into the months after delivery. Almost 70 percent of women still reported headache improvement 1 year after their baby was born.

Also, through cognitive restructuring therapy for headache, you can use your thoughts to help prevent or treat headaches.

Make realistic goals about your headaches. Don't expect your treatment to cure your headaches. Realistic goals include achieving decreases in:

  • Headache severity
  • Headache frequency
  • Headache duration
  • Interference with life activities because of headaches
  • Reliance on medications

Give yourself positive messages about your headaches:

  • "I can use skills I have learned to improve my headache."
  • "My headache is going to get better."
  • "I will continue to use relaxation and stress management techniques to help reduce my headache threshold."
  • "I know what to do to treat my headaches."

Non-drug treatments reduce brain pain chemicals, relax muscles and decrease stress hormones, such as adrenaline. The obvious advantage of non-drug treatment is that you don't have to worry about medication side effects.

The Woman's Migraine Toolkit: Managing Your Headaches from Puberty to Menopause (A DiaMedica Guide to Optimum Wellness)

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The Woman's Migraine Toolkit: Managing Your Headaches from Puberty to Menopause (A DiaMedica Guide to Optimum Wellness)

Migraines are a common, controllable type of headache that affects one in every six women, more than 20 million in the United States alone. The Woman’s Migraine Toolkit helps readers take charge of...
Dr. Mosaraf Ali, MD
Integrative Medicine Specialist

If you're prone to headaches, you may find yourself popping pain relievers more often than you'd like. But simple yoga exercises and breathing techniques could help you prevent the pain before it starts. In this video, integrative medicine expert Dr. Mosaraf Ali demonstrates a few effective moves.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

Too much stress is at fault for 90 percent of tension headaches. Instead of popping a painkiller, try utilizing an acupressure point. Take two fingers and press firmly on the bridge of your nose, right beneath the brow line, for a few minutes.

Magnesia phos is also a homeopathic remedy for a headache. Homeopathy is a natural approach to medicine based on the idea that like cures like.

How it's supposed to work: Improves blood flow and neural function.

Dose: Depends on the brand and bottle you purchase and the severity of your symptoms. Make sure you specifically buy homeopathic preparations and follow the instructions on the bottle.

As with any new supplement or medication, be sure to check with your doctor before trying it. Studies on homeopathic medicine are ongoing, and whether or not homeopathic remedies are effective is very controversial.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.