Headaches are often stress-related. For people who don’t want to use drugs or can’t handle the side effects, there are also natural remedies available. These have the advantage of being as effective as drug therapy in some cases, and they are often cheaper than drugs and have no or fewer side effects. Here is a look at some popular non-drug approaches to treating headaches.
Long before Western medicine showed up on the scene, people used plants to treat themselves for various ailments. Many of these herbal remedies are surprisingly effective, having been shown to work over centuries of use. In many cases, their effectiveness is now being proven to the Western world in scientific studies. Some of the herbs commonly used to treat headaches include:
- Feverfew - This herb is a small relative of the sunflower that looks much like a miniature daisy. It has been used as an anti-inflammatory for centuries in traditional medicine. Feverfew has been shown in several studies to be effective in both prevention and treatment of migraines. To use feverfew to stop a migraine, take 100-300 mg of the herb. If you are allergic to yarrow, chamomile, or ragweed, please avoid feverfew because you may be allergic to it, also.
- Willow Bark - Willow bark has been used for centuries to treat pain and inflammation – it is the original source of aspirin, and is equally effective. However, willow bark appears to be less likely to upset your stomach than aspirin. Since aspirin can cause Reye’s syndrome in children under 16, it is advised to also avoid giving willow bark to them.
- Valerian, skullcap, and lemon balm - Used separately or in combination, these herbs possess both sedative and anti-spasmodic properties. They can help relax you and help to de-constrict your arteries, restoring proper blood flow to your brain. These herbs are available in the form of capsules, tea and tinctures. Effective for tension headaches and possibly for migraines.
- Cayenne - A cayenne pepper solution can be used as a nose spray to help relieve a cluster headache. However, this treatment can cause pain and a burning sensation in the nose. Talk to a naturopath or doctor to find a suitable preparation.
- Ginger – Ginger may be effective in treating migraine headaches. There was a case study where a woman who suffered from chronic migraines began taking ginger at the first sign of aura and was able to head off her headache. Ginger has anti-inflammatory properties and is known to help fight off nausea. There currently have not been any standardized experiments done on ginger, but to see if it works for you, take 500 to 600 milligrams of powdered ginger in water.
- Ginkgo Biloba – Although this herb is better-known as a memory enhancer, it can also help stop migraine pain. Ginkgo widens blood vessels and helps improve circulation, keeping a normal amount of blood and oxygen flowing to the brain.
- Coffee – Coffee contains caffeine, which has been shown effective in treating headaches. However, be aware that many over-the-counter drugs for headaches, such as Excedrin, also contain caffeine.
People have always taken great pleasure in the scent of certain plants and herbs. However, aromatherapy is about more than perfume. Aromatherapy harnesses the power of essential plant oils and fragrances to enhance health and well-being.
Don’t be fooled by “aromatherapy” products that contain synthetic fragrance oils instead of real essential oils. To get the benefits, you need to inhale the volatile compounds from the plant itself, compounds found only in real essential oils.
For aromatherapy, you can take a warm bath with essential oils in the bathwater, apply just a drop or two of skin-safe oil to your skin, or place a few drops in a bowl of hot water and inhale the steam. Most essential oils should not be applied to your skin at full strength. Instead, you should dilute to a 2% concentration using a carrier oil to avoid skin irritation.
Here are some essential oils commonly used in the treatment of headaches:
- Peppermint - Stimulates blood flow and has a pain-relieving effect that may be as strong as acetaminophen. Inhale vapors, or apply a drop to your temples.
- Sandalwood - Applied in a paste made with clay to the temples. This is a popular remedy from India.
- Lavender - Lavender is a sedative that also relieves pain. This oil can safely be used “neat,” without diluting it in carrier oil.
- Rosemary - Stimulates blood flow and helps relieve pain. Can be combined with lavender oil and rubbed directly on stiff neck muscles to relax them.
- Rose oil - Rose oil massaged onto your face will help lift a headache.
- Frankincense - Frankincense oil can be applied full-strength at the base of the skull.
The mind-body connection is a potent force that is still little-understood. However, doctors and scientists are learning more and more about this connection, and biofeedback is one result of our increased knowledge. With biofeedback, the patient is taught how to control bodily functions that until recently were thought to be involuntary. For example, heart rate, body temperature, brain activity and muscle tension.
How does biofeedback work? Basically, you are hooked up to a machine that uses sensors to measure the bodily functions you are trying to learn to control. For example, your therapist might hook you up to an electromyogram, which is a machine that measures muscle tension. The machine lets you know when the tension level in your muscles changes – for example, it may make noise or light up. By learning to sense when your muscles are starting to tense up, you can also learn to control that tension and relax them. In addition to biofeedback for muscle tension, biofeedback to control body temperature is commonly used for migraines. People that learn how to raise their body temperature report that they are able to control their migraines.
The link between body temperature and pain relief for migraines is that in order for your body temperature to rise, your blood vessels have to get wider. Thus, if you can learn to raise your body temperature, you can learn to control the flow of blood into your brain and cut off the chain reaction that results in a migraine headache.
Acupuncture and Acupressure
Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese science that has been in use for thousands of years. However, it is relatively new to Western culture and is still seen as a form of alternative medicine. Acupuncture uses extremely thin needles (much thinner than a hypodermic needle) that are inserted into specific points on the body.
Acupuncture is based on the concept of an invisible energy system that circulates through our bodies along paths referred to as “meridians.” This energy is called “chi.” In ancient Chinese medical theory, many illnesses were thought to result when a person’s chi was blocked and prevented from circulating properly. Acupuncture uses needles to stimulate certain pressure points along the meridians, which is believed to correct the flow of chi in the body. Of course, the existence of “chi” is not universally acknowledged in Western medicine, and many doctors either question acupuncture’s effectiveness or look for other explanations for it. However it works, many studies have shown that acupuncture is able to help people with a variety of conditions, including headaches.
Acupressure is a type of massage therapy that is based on the principles of acupuncture. Basically, the same pressure points are stimulated, but instead of using needles, strong pressure is applied by the therapist’s fingers. This treatment is appropriate for people who want to try acupuncture but are terrified of needles. Unlike acupuncture, which must be practiced by an acupuncturist, acupressure can be used at home. This makes it extremely convenient for treating headaches as they occur.
To try acupressure on yourself, you can very firmly massage the webbed area in between your thumb and forefinger, at the point where the finger bone and thumb bone meet and form a “V.” This is considered one of the best pressure points for a headache, and it’s also by far the easiest to reach on your own. You can also try massaging the points on each side of the neck vertebrae, right where the muscles of your neck meet your skull.
Homeopathy is a system of medicine developed by Samuel Hahnemann , a German doctor, in the late 18th century. Homeopathic remedies follow the basic principles he laid out, namely, “like cures like” and the “law of infinitesimals.”
The principle of “like cures like” basically states that a homeopathic remedy is chosen based on the symptoms it would produce if taken in large quantities in a healthy person. Homeopathic practitioners look for a substance that produces similar systems to what the patient is suffering. Since “like cures like,” that substance will become the remedy. The “law of infinitesimals” states that only very small dosages of the substance are necessary. These highly diluted doses prompt the body to react with a natural healing response that also corrects the original ailment.
There are various types of homeopathic remedies, each for a specific set of headache symptoms. The following list contains only a few examples. To find the correct remedy for your specific headache, it is recommended that you visit a licensed homeopath.
- Belladonna – Highly diluted solutions of belladonna are given when the patient experiences the following symptoms: extremely intense, stabbing pains on one side of the head, change in pupil size, flushing on one side of the face. Basically, all the symptoms of a classic cluster headache.
- Natrum muriaticum – This substance is recommended for throbbing headaches accompanied by disturbances of vision, symptoms that seem to indicate a migraine.
- Gelsemium is recommended as a homeopathic remedy for tension headaches, characterized by the feeling of having a rubber band drawn too tightly around the head.
Relaxation Techniques: Meditation and Visualization
Another drug-free method of treating headaches is to practice relaxation techniques to help relax your muscles and clear your mind of stress. Many people find techniques such as meditation and creative visualization to be quite helpful in stopping a headache.
Meditation is one relaxation technique that has been studied for migraines. In the study, participants who meditated reported experiencing fewer migraines than people who did not meditate.
Many religions practice some form of meditation, so there are many different types of meditation. However, they all share a common goal: to help the participant learn to focus their attention entirely in the present moment. By living life one moment at a time, much of the stress that triggers headaches can be avoided or diminished. Although meditation can be part of religious practice for some people, it certainly does not have to be. Many people practice meditation simply to gain greater mental discipline and better control over their thoughts, or to relieve stress.
Visualization and Guided Imagery
Visualization and guided imagery are powerful relaxation techniques. Like meditation, they rely on harnessing the power of the mind to heal the body. However, the difference between meditation and using guided imagery is that meditation is about clearing your mind completely. With guided imagery, on the other hand, instead of clearing your mind, you focus on a set of healing images. For example, some people visualize standing in front of a giant medicine cabinet, choosing a bottle from the cabinet, and taking a pill. The idea is that simply imagining taking a headache pill that you know will work causes the body to behave as if under the influence of the imaginary medication. Thus, your headache goes away.
Another simple guided imagery technique is to imagine your headache as a ball of red light that fills up the inside of your skull. If your head is pounding, imagine the light pulsing in time with your pain. Now, imagine that your hands are producing a gentle azure light, like starlight. Bring your hands up to your head, placing them wherever the pain is most intense. Imagine the cool starlight from your hands chasing away the hot red light in your head, and you should feel your pain diminish along with the red light.
Hot and Cold Therapy
Using heat and cold to relieve pain is another natural method of treating a headache. For example, an ice cold compress applied to the temples relieves headache pain for some people. When the headache is accompanied by pain in the neck area, a warm compress will relax muscles and reduce headache-triggering tension. Alternating hot and cold showers will help increase circulation and may help with migraines.