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Alternative Treatments for Migraines and Headaches

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Acupuncture for Migraines and Headaches continued...

According to studies, acupuncture may cause the release of pain-reducing opioid chemicals, such as endorphins. In addition, acupuncture may stimulate the brain to release other types of body chemicals and hormones that transmit signals between different types of cells, including those of the immune system.

Acupuncture appears to be beneficial in treating a variety of health problems in addition to headaches. The World Health Organization currently recognizes more than 30 diseases or conditions, ranging from allergies to tennis elbow, that can be helped by acupuncture treatment. The Consensus Statement on Acupuncture by the National Institutes of Health, released in 1997, stated that for conditions including headache, low back pain, menstrual cramps, and carpal tunnel syndrome, acupuncture was useful as an additional treatment or an acceptable alternative to be included in a comprehensive pain management program.

What makes acupuncture a unique antipain approach is the suggestion that its effects may be long-lasting. In one recent study, acupuncture treatment reduced chronic pain in the neck and shoulder areas and associated headache, with the effects lasting for months.

Massage for Migraines and Headaches

The value of massage in treating headaches has not been demonstrated convincingly through clinical trials. Nevertheless, massage is a great way to reduce stress and relieve tension. It is especially effective in reducing tightness of tender muscles, such as those in the back of the head, neck, and shoulders, and increasing blood flow in those areas. For some people, massage may provide relief from headaches caused by muscle tension.

Herbs for Migraines and Headaches

Among herbs used for migraine and headache treatment and prevention, only the effectiveness and safety of feverfew has been examined in clinical trials. Feverfew is the most popular herbal remedy for prevention of migraine headache, and studies have shown that it is helpful and well-tolerated, with only mild side effects. However, the evidence is not convincing that this herb is more effective than a placebo (inactive pill). More rigorous and larger clinical trials are required.

Essential Oils for Migraines and Headaches

Another approach that has origins in herbal medicine is aromatherapy. In many traditional medical practices, the use of essential oil, simply by smelling it or by applying it to the skin, is thought to encourage relaxation and alter pain perception. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the use of lavender, ginger, or peppermint oils may help relieve tension-type headaches. More research has to be done to determine the effectiveness of this therapy.

Dietary Changes for Migraines and Headaches

Certain foods, such as chocolate, aged cheese, citrus fruits, red wine, and others, may cause headaches in susceptible people. For long-lasting management of headaches, it is important to identify and reduce food-related headache triggers (along with others, including stress, sleep deprivation, and fatigue). This can be done by maintaining a careful diary of headaches and eating habits. To date, only a few dietary intervention trials have been conducted to determine if dietary changes can reduce headache pain.

However, a significant decrease in migraine headache has been observed when dietary fat consumption is reduced. Other studies suggest that supplementing the diet with omega-3 fatty acids may be beneficial. Other potentially helpful supplements include coenzyme Q10 and melatonin. Again, more research is needed on these supplements to determine their safety and effectiveness.

Considering the lack of reliable data on the benefits of dietary approaches to headache management, it's best to eat a well-balanced diet and avoid skipping meals or fasting, as this may trigger a migraine attack. Also, be sure to talk to your doctor before starting a new diet or taking any new medications, including vitamins, herbs, and supplements.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Neil Lava, MD on May 09, 2012
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