Medicines can ease migraines and other types of headaches, but people often use complementary and alternative treatments to get relief.
Stress is known to lead to some of the most common types of headaches, including migraines and tension headaches.
So scientists have studied alternative treatments aimed at stress reduction, such as biofeedback and relaxation, and found that they work well for some people. Some people get relief from non-traditional headache treatments, including acupuncture, massage, herbs, and diets, but others don’t.
Biofeedback helps you use information (feedback) about muscle tension, skin temperature, brain waves, and other body signals to reduce your stress. Small metal sensors, called electrodes, are placed on your skin to measure those signs. A machine shows that data as numbers, electrical waves, or sounds on a screen.
Studies show there are differences in blood flow in the brain during migraine attacks and in the pain-free periods in between. Using biofeedback training, a person can change the blood flow to the brain and better manage a headache.
Most studies on biofeedback show that it makes headaches shorter and happen less often in children and adults. In general, its effects seem similar to many drugs that treat headaches, and it can be part of early treatment for migraines.
Life events that increase stress, anxiety, and depression have been linked with chronic migraines and other headaches. Studies show that a combination of stress management and some antidepressant drugs reduce headaches and the use of pain medications. Along with a regular practice of relaxation, it may also help to get enough sleep and eat a healthy diet.
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Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese technique in which very fine needles go into points on the body. Practitioners say it helps ease headaches by making the body better able to resist or overcome illnesses by correcting energy imbalances.
According to studies, acupuncture may make the body release chemicals that block pain, such as endorphins. It also may stimulate the brain to give off other chemicals and hormones that send signals between different types of cells, including those of the immune system.
Acupuncture seems to help with a variety of health problems in addition to headaches. The World Health Organization recognizes more than 30 conditions, from allergies to tennis elbow that the practice can help. Other studies, though, suggest that it mainly helps people only because they believe it will work, called a placebo effect.
What makes acupuncture a unique pain treatment is that its effects may be long-lasting. In one study, it eased chronic pain in the neck and shoulder areas and the headaches it caused, with the effects lasting for months.
If you try this approach, be sure to look for an experienced, well-trained acupuncturist who uses sterile needles. Many states require a license, certification, or registration to practice it, so check the laws in your area.
Clinical trials haven’t shown convincing evidence that massage treats headaches. But it’s a great way to reduce stress and relieve tension. It especially helps with tightness of tender muscles, such as those in the back of the head, neck, and shoulders, and it boosts blood flow in those areas. For some people, massage may relieve headaches caused by muscle tension.
People use a variety of herbs for migraine and headache treatment and prevention, but most of the studies on effectiveness and safety have looked at feverfew and butterbur. Feverfew is the most popular herbal remedy for prevention of migraines, and studies have shown that it is helpful, with only mild side effects. But there are no convincing data that it is more effective than a placebo (a fake pill). Scientists need to do more research on these treatments.
Before you try any herbs or supplements, talk to your doctor to be sure they’re safe for you and they won’t interfere with other medicines you’re taking.
In this therapy, you breathe in essential oils or rub them on your skin to help you relax and change how you perceive pain. Many people say that lavender, ginger, or peppermint oils may help relieve tension headaches. Scientists need more research to know how well this therapy works.
Certain foods, such as chocolate, aged cheese, citrus fruits, and red wine, may trigger headaches for some people. If this is true for you, try to identify and avoid food-related headache triggers. (The same goes for other things that bring on headaches, including stress, lack of sleep, and fatigue. You can start by keeping a careful diary of your headache symptoms and eating habits.
Drink more water throughout the day.
Researchers have done only a few studies to test if diet changes can reduce headache pain. But some studies found a decrease in migraines when people ate less fat. Other studies suggest that adding omega-3 fatty acids to the diet may help. Other helpful supplements include magnesium, riboflavin, coenzyme Q10 and melatonin. Again, more research is needed on these supplements to know if they are safe and effective.
Your best bet is to eat a well-balanced diet. Also, avoid skipping meals or fasting, which can trigger a migraine attack. And be sure to talk to your doctor before you start a new diet or take any new medications, including vitamins, herbs, and supplements.
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There’s a good reason you might ask someone to take a deep breath when they seem anxious or overwhelmed. Breathing exercises have real effects on your body that help keep you calm and control your stress. And for people who get tension headaches or migraine, they can be a key part of treatment.
But are they any match for the intense pain of a cluster headache? While there haven’t been studies to show it, some doctors think they’re worth trying. After all, there’s no harm, and it won’t cost you a dime. All you need is a few minutes and attention to your breath.
Because the pain of cluster headaches is so severe, you may find it hard or impossible to do the exercises during one. Or, you may find they just don’t give you any added relief. Even then, there’s still a reason to try them.
Breathing exercises can lower anxiety. So if you worry about your next attack, they’re a good tool to help you stay even and relaxed.
There are different types of breathing you can try. No matter which one you use, it helps to:
It’s also best to set aside time for it each day. This regular practice will train your body to fall into the breathing more easily when you need it. If you only do it when you’re in pain, it’ll be much harder to really sink into it.
And keep in mind that these exercises are no substitute for medicine. They’re something to use along with your normal treatment.
When you’re stressed and anxious, you tend to take shorter breaths than usual. This exercise helps you reset. The aim is slow, deep, and steady breaths:
If your breathing style is usually short and fast, this exercise will help you slow it down a bit:
As you notice yourself getting calmer, you give your body feedback that helps you relax even further.
For this one, you combine breathing with pictures in your mind:
While deep breathing may not solve your cluster headaches, breathing pure oxygen might. First used for migraine, it’s now very common for cluster headaches, too. It’s pretty simple, and there are no side effects.
When the pain comes on, you breathe in oxygen through a special mask connected to a tank. Your doctor will tell you what rate of oxygen you need to take in. Studies show that 15 liters per minute works the best. Some doctors may start lower and dial it up as needed. You typically use it for about 15 minutes when the headache first comes on.
It tends to work well at curbing your symptoms but it does have some drawbacks. Because some studies on oxygen therapy showed mixed results, not all insurance companies pay for it. You also need an oxygen tank. That limits where you can use it, though you might be able to get a small one to take on the go.Cefaly is a portable headband-like device sends electrical pulses through the skin of the forehead. They stimulate a nerve that’s linked with migraine headaches. You use it once a day for 20 minutes, and when it’s on you’ll feel a tingling or massaging sensation.
Doctors usually recommend these if you have more than two or three migraines a month. Medications that aim to head off a migraine episode, so that it never fully starts, include:
Another prevention tool is one that may surprise you: Botox (Botulinium Toxin).
Along with treating wrinkles, studies have shown that it helps some people with chronic migraine headaches. In 2010, the FDA approved Botox for the preventive treatment of chronic migraine headaches — those that occur at least 15 days per month, with the headache lasting 4 hours daily or longer. Scientists think that the drug keeps the body from releasing chemicals involved in sending pain signals.
When you take medication to prevent migraine headaches, keep these tips in mind:
Cefaly is a portable headband-like device sends electrical pulses through the skin of the forehead. They stimulate a nerve that’s linked with migraine headaches. You use it once a day for 20 minutes, and when it’s on you’ll feel a tingling or massaging sensation.