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Alternative Treatments for Migraines and Headaches

Migraines and other types of headaches cause significant productive loss to employers. They are also one of the most common complaints seen in the doctor's office.

Although drug treatments are effective, people suffering from headaches often use a wide spectrum of complementary and alternative treatments.

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Chronic stress may contribute to the development of the most common types of headaches, including migraines and tension-type headaches. So it's not surprising that alternative treatments aimed at stress reduction, such as biofeedback and relaxation, are well-studied and considered effective treatments for some patients with headaches. There are additional "nontraditional" headache treatments, including acupuncture, massage, herbs, and diets, for which there are varying degrees of effectiveness.

Biofeedback for Migraines and Headaches

Biofeedback is a technique that can help a headache sufferer learn stress-reduction skills by providing information (feedback) about muscle tension, skin temperature, brain waves, and other vital signs. Small metal sensors, called electrodes, are attached to the skin and measure the amount of muscle tension or the skin temperature. This information is displayed as numbers, electrical waves, or sounds on a screen. For example, a stress response reduces skin temperature because of constriction of blood vessels, while a relaxation response results in dilated blood vessels and warm skin.

The results of several studies show changes in the blood flow in the brain during migraine attacks and in the pain-free periods in between. Using biofeedback training, a person can influence the blood flow to the brain and better manage a headache.

Most studies on biofeedback indicate that it reduces the frequency and duration of headaches, both in children and adults. In general, the effects of biofeedback appear to be comparable to many drugs used for chronic headaches, and can be recommended as early treatment for recurrent migraines.

Stress Management for Migraines and Headaches

Life events that increase stress, anxiety, and depression have been associated with chronic migraines and headaches. Certain antidepressant drugs are the primary therapy for some types of chronic headaches, such as a tension-type headache. The results of a large study indicate that stress management therapy reduced headache, headache-related disability, and use of pain medications to a similar degree as therapy with antidepressant drugs. However, the best results were obtained when stress management was combined with antidepressant medication.

It may be helpful to incorporate a regular practice of relaxation into a health-promoting lifestyle (getting enough sleep and eating a healthy diet, for example).

Biofeedback and relaxation training can be obtained at the psychology and psychiatry departments of many medical centers.

Acupuncture for Migraines and Headaches

Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese technique that involves the insertion of very fine, solid needles into certain points of the body. According to traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture helps headaches by stimulating the body's ability to resist or overcome illnesses and conditions by correcting energy imbalances. The term "chi" (pronounced "chee") is used to describe the energy that circulates through meridians in the body. The belief is that migraine and headache pain develops when the natural flow of chi is disrupted, leading to an imbalance of energy, and that acupuncture can correct this energy disruption to restore physical, mental, and emotional health.

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