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 work well for some people. Some people get relief from nontraditional headache treatments, including acupuncture, massage, herbs, and diets, but others don't.
Biofeedback helps you use information (feedback) about muscle tension, skin temperature, brain waves, and other body signals to reduce your stress. Small metal sensors, called electrodes, are placed 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, a person can change the blood flow to the 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.
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 reduce 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.
Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese technique in which very fine needles go into points on the body. Practitioners say it helps ease headaches by making the body better able to resist or overcome illnesses by correcting energy imbalances.
According to studies, acupuncture may make the body release chemicals that block pain, such as endorphins. It also may stimulate the 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 in addition to headaches. The World Health Organization recognizes more than 30 conditions, from allergies to tennis elbow, that the practice can help. Other studies, though, suggest that it mainly helps people only because they believe it will work, called a 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, with the effects lasting 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.
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.
People use a variety of herbs for migraine and headache treatment and prevention, but most of the studies on effectiveness and safety have looked at feverfew and butterbur. Feverfew is the most popular herbal remedy for prevention of migraines, and studies have shown that it is 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.
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.
In this therapy, 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.
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 reduce headache pain. But some studies found a decrease in migraines when people ate less fat. Other studies suggest that adding omega-3 fatty acids to the diet may help. Other potentially helpful supplements include magnesium, riboflavin, coenzyme Q10 and melatonin. Again, more research is needed on these supplements to know if they are safe and effective.
Your best bet is to eat a well-balanced diet. Also, avoid skipping meals or fasting, which can trigger a migraine attack. And be sure to talk to your doctor before you start a new diet or take any new medications, including vitamins, herbs, and supplements.