Headaches are an equal-opportunity affliction: Virtually everyone gets them, at least once in a while. Americans spend $72.5 billion a year on painkillers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — plus another $1 billion on brain scans that do little to help ease their suffering, new research shows.
But whether you suffer from occasional tension headaches, throbbing hangover-induced pain, or debilitating migraines, you don't always have to reach for the medicine cabinet to treat your discomfort. In fact, a half-dozen natural methods have been clinically proven to ease pain as effectively as over-the-counter treatments in some people.
Among them: Getting enough sleep, eating small frequent meals, applying cold compresses to your forehead, taking a hot shower, getting a massage, or engaging in some type of relaxation practice (such as meditation) to help manage stress.
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Dawn C. Buse, director of behavioral medicine at the Montefiore Headache Center, tells Newsmax Health scientific research has shown a variety of stress-busting psychological practices can ease headache pain. Among them: relaxation therapies, cognitive behavioral therapy, and biofeedback.
An analysis of non-drug treatments for migraine and headache, sponsored by the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, identified 355 studies of behavioral and physical treatments.
"Meta-analyses comparing behavioral therapies (including biofeedback, relaxation therapies, and cognitive behavioral therapy) with preventive medications for migraine show similar efficacy," notes Buse, an associate professor with the Department of Neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University.
"These approaches can be very helpful in managing migraine. They are cost effective and safe, which makes them good options for pregnancy and other cases where mediation use is undesirable … Once they are learned, they can be practiced almost anytime and anywhere for the rest of one's life."
According to health experts — and the latest pain research, as reported recently by Health.com
— here are six of the most effective ways to stop headaches.
Sleep. Headaches can indicate you are not getting enough rest, according to the American Headache Society. Busy schedules, stressful work and family lives, and high-pressured lifestyles often contribute to sleep disturbances that fuel head pain. There is no substitute for getting a good night's sleep — with most experts recommending between 7 and 9 hours each day. Be sure to go to sleep and wake up about the same time every day. Some research has found a 15-minute "powernap," when you feel a headache coming on, can head it off. Getting sufficient rest has also been tied to a lower risk of developing a range of health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, depression, and other forms of chronic pain.
Eat a healthy diet; stay hydrated. Going long periods without eating can lower your blood sugar and lead to irritability, sluggish thinking, and head pain. Dehydration can also bring on a pounding headache. Staying hydrated — drink at least eight tall glasses of water each day — and eating healthy foods (in small, frequent meals throughout the day) can stave off headache pain. Research shows magnesium may also ease pain by combatting inflammation. The essential mineral can be consumed in supplements and is also found in green leafy vegetables like spinach, olive oil, sunflower seeds, and tofu.
Ice your forehead. The classic image of a headache sufferer pressing an icepack to his or her forehead has some fairly strong scientific backing. Putting a cold compress on your forehead or eyes can provide relief from throbbing pain. Research by the National Headache Foundation found 71 percent of patients who used a frozen gel pack to treat head pain found it a quick and effective reliever. Neurologists aren’t sure ice packs work, but cold slows blood flow and reduces inflammation. Ice may also override the pain circuits in the brain; essentially it can't perceive both pain and cold, so it tunes out the pain.
Jump into a hot shower or sauna. If your headache is tied to sinus pressure or congestion, taking a hot shower can provide instant relief, possibly by increasing blood flow, which eases some types of pain. Research suggests finding a warm, moist environment — such as a sauna or steam bath — or applying a heating pad to the forehead can also reduce headache pain and lessen the symptoms of a migraine.
Get a massage or try acupressure. Instinctively, many headache sufferers rub their temples with their fingers — and for good reason. Any type of massage eases stress and tension, which can stop or prevent headaches. New Zealand researchers recently reported migraine sufferers who receive regular rubdowns experience less frequent pain. Even a short, 30-minute rubdown was shown to relieve pain and boost the moods of patients with recurring tension headaches, according to another study out of Spain. In addition, the traditional Chinese medicine practices of acupressure and acupuncture have been shown to work for some headache sufferers. A Taiwanese study showed acupressure or trigger-point massage was more effective than muscle relaxant medication in reducing in headaches up to six months after treatment.
Relax. There's a reason we call them "tension" headaches. Mental, physical, and emotional stresses can all contribute to headaches. Consequently, one of the best ways to ease the pain is by engaging in relaxation techniques — such as meditation, cognitive behavioral therapy, and biofeedback — to relieve all that stress and tension. In fact, many experts believe regular headaches are symptom of too much stress for many people — from work, family, relationships, and other lifestyle factors.
Buse notes that many studies have shown headache pain can be eased by relaxation-training techniques — such as meditation, yoga, diaphragmatic breathing, hypnosis, prayer, listening to pleasant music, and other techniques that quiet the mind to ease stress. Biofeedback, which teaches patients to monitor their pain and address it through relaxation training, has been found to ease migraines. And cognitive behavioral therapy — a form of psychological treatment that aims to change unhealthy thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors to relive stress — has also had promising effects on treating headaches.
Buse adds that it's also critically important to be aware of headache triggers — keeping a regular sleep-wake schedule, getting regular exercise, staying hydrated, eating a healthy diet, and managing stress.
Mark W. Green, M.D., director of the Center for Headache and Pain Medicine and Professor of Neurology and Anesthesiology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, tells Newsmax Health all of these drug-free strategies can be helpful to many people who suffer from headaches. But he stresses that more serious chronic brain conditions — such as migraines — may require medical care and attention.
“The [natural] treatments mentioned can be helpful, but … it is best to think of these treatments as treatments for occasional attacks,” says Dr. Green. “In one with disabling migraines, they rarely suffice and medications are generally necessary. These require one being under medical care [but] narcotics are rarely appropriate in the treatment of migraine ...”
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