Alternative Treatments for Headaches and Migraines

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 often work well. Some people get relief from nontraditional headache treatments -- including acupuncture, massage, herbs, and diets -- but others don't. Some tried and true methods include:

  • Electromyographic (EMG) biofeedback
  • Botox
  • Stress management
  • Acupuncture
  • Massage
  • Herbs
  • Aromatherapy
  • Diet changes

Electromyographic (EMG) Biofeedback

Biofeedback helps you use information (feedback) about muscle tension, skin temperature, brain waves, and other body signals to ease your stress. A technician places small metal sensors, called electrodes, 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, you can change the blood flow to your 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.

You can work with a specialist at the psychology, psychiatry, and integrative medicine departments of many medical centers to learn how to use biofeedback.

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Botox

Though it’s best known for the role it plays in smoothing out frown lines, OnabotulinumtoxinA (Botox) can also help treat chronic migraines. That means you have both:

  • A history of migraine headaches
  • Headaches (including tension-type) on most days (15 or more) of the month, of which 8 are migraines

Doctors think Botox works for migraine headaches because it blocks chemicals called neurotransmitters that carry pain signals from your brain. Botox is like a roadblock in that pathway. It stops the chemicals before they get to the nerve endings around your head and neck. Botox won't work for you if you:

  • Get headaches 14 or fewer days each month
  • Have other types of headaches, like cluster ones

You’ll get the treatment every 3 months for a year or more. It consists of shots in these areas:

  • Bridge of your nose
  • Forehead
  • Temples
  • Back of your head
  • Neck
  • Upper back

It may be a couple of weeks after the first shots before results show up.

Stress Management

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 ease 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.

A specialist in psychology, psychiatry, or integrative medicine can teach you how to use relaxation training.

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Acupuncture

In this ancient Chinese technique, practitioners insert fine needles into points on your body. They say it helps ease headaches by correcting energy imbalances and making your body better able to resist or overcome illness.

Research shows acupuncture may cause your body to release chemicals that block pain, like endorphins. It also may tell your 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. The World Health Organization recognizes more than 30 conditions it can improve, from allergies to tennis elbow. Other studies, though, suggest it mainly helps people because they believe it will work. This is what doctors call the 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, and the effects lasted 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.

Massage

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.

Herbs

People use a variety of herbs for migraine and headache treatment and prevention. Most of the studies on effectiveness and safety have looked at two:

  • Feverfew is the most popular herbal way to prevent migraines, and studies have shown that it may be 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.
  • Butterbur got the nod for making migraines less frequent. Only use products that have been processed to remove plant chemicals called pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs). They can cause liver damage and serious illness. Keep in mind that there isn’t much information about the long-term effects of butterbur.

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.

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Aromatherapy

In this type of treatment, 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. Also, be careful when you put oils on your skin. Some can irritate it.

Diet Changes

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.

Researchers have done only a few studies to test if diet changes can ease headache pain. Some found that people who ate less fat had fewer migraines. Others suggest adding omega-3 fatty acids to your diet. Supplements that might help include magnesium, riboflavin, coenzyme Q10, and melatonin. Again, more research is needed on to know if they’re safe and effective.

Your best bet is to eat a well-balanced diet. Don’t skip meals or fast. Each can trigger a migraine. Talk to your doctor before you start a new diet or take any new medications, including vitamins, herbs, and supplements.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on October 02, 2018

Sources

SOURCES:

Sun-Edelstein, C. Clin J Pain, June 2009.

Mauskop, A. Continuum, August 2012.

Lipton, R.B. Neurology, December 2004.

American Migraine Foundation: “Botox-A for Suppression of Chronic Migraine: Commonly Asked Questions."

NYU Langone Health: “Botox Injections for Migraine in Adults.”

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Butterbur.”

National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy: “Exploring Aromatherapy.”

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