Tired of reaching for medicine for headaches? Consider complementary and alternative treatments that may reduce them or help you get rid of them, according to the American Migraine Foundation.
Complementary means you can take them along with traditional medication. Alternative means you could use them instead.
Mind-Body Alternative Headache Treatments
"Treatments like meditation, relaxation and biofeedback are safe and seem to help many people with headaches," says Michael Doerrler, DO, an assistant professor of neurology and a headache specialist at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago. "These alternative treatments are especially helpful for people who have headaches triggered by stress or anxiety,"
Many mind-body treatments have been studied for headaches. Here are top options, according to National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH):
This light application of needles on the skin at specific points has been shown to relieve headache pain and reduce their frequency in many studies. An April 2017 study in JAMA Internal Medicine involving nearly 250 migraine sufferers found that true acupuncture reduced the frequency of attacks compared with a sham procedure or people on a waiting list for treatment.
This therapist-led approach teaches you how to use your mind to have better control over your body so that you can better control headaches. Some studies show that biofeedback may be helpful for tension headaches and may decrease the frequency of migraines.
By manipulating your muscles and other soft tissues, a trained massage therapist may be able to reduce the muscle tension that causes tension headaches. A few small studies have shown that massage may even help reduce migraines. However, people with certain health conditions and pregnant women should consult their health care providers before having massage therapy.
These include guided imagery with progressive muscle relaxation, self-hypnosis and meditation. They are used mainly for tension headaches, but there are not many high-quality studies to show exactly how well they work.
Done by a chiropractic doctor, this approach may be used as a headache treatment. "Chiropractic manipulation works best if there is a muscle or skeletal cause to the headache," Dr. Doerrler says. "This includes neck pain in the cervical spine, called cervicogenic headache."
Mind and Body Exercises
Tai chi is a Chinese movement discipline that includes graceful exercises, deep breathing and relaxation. At least one small study showed that tai chi may reduce tension headaches — it's also good for balance and flexibility. "Another example of this type of therapy is restorative yoga," adds Dr. Doerrler.
Dietary Supplements as Alternative Headache Treatments
Some supplements may help some people, according to the NCCIH. However, because many supplements have not been studied in pregnant and breastfeeding women, both the center and Dr. Doerrler stress the importance of not taking any supplements without first letting your doctor know if you're pregnant or nursing.
NCCIH says these dietary supplements may offer headache help:
Research has found butterbur effective for reducing the frequency and severity of migraine headaches. However, it can cause digestive symptoms, usually burping. "Butterbur has also been linked to liver damage," Dr. Doerrler says. "Like all supplements, it should be used under your doctor's supervision."
Research shows that this popular antioxidant is considered possibly effective for migraine prevention. No serious side effects are known, but it may interact with blood-thinning medications.
This supplement is also rated as probably effective for migraine prevention. Side effects including stomachache, sore mouth or tongue and muscle aches. It, too, can react with blood thinners and is not safe for use in pregnancy.
Levels of this important mineral tend to be low in people with migraine, so it's not surprising that it's probably effective for migraine prevention. But magnesium supplements can cause diarrhea and can react with other medications.
Riboflavin (Vitamin B2)
This vitamin is probably effective for migraine prevention. It is considered safe, but may turn your urine an intense yellow color.
Putting Alternatives in Perspective
"If you are having three or more headaches every week, you should not be treating yourself," Dr. Doerrler cautions. "Talk to a headache specialist."
"Complementary or alternative treatments may be part of your treatment plan," he says, but also keep in mind that supplements and mind-body treatments should not be used as a substitute for medical treatment that your doctor has prescribed.