The FDA approved a high-tech headband for migraines this week, but there are also plenty of low-tech ways to ease the pain
Anyone who’s ever had a headache (and that’s 90% of the entire population, according to some estimates) knows that they can range from nagging to debilitating. The most common type is a tension headache, a mild, constricting feeling around your head that’s often caused by holding your neck in a tight position. Migraines, on the other hand, tend to be both intense and recurring. Medication is one way to treat your discomfort. Or, you can don a high-tech headband device, approved this week by the FDA. But there are also plenty of natural ways—like the 21 tricks listed here—that can help you head off the ache.
Headaches are often a sign that your body needs a break, says Elizabeth Loder, MD, chief of the headache and pain division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and President of the American Headache Society. “Many people are very busy and are reluctant to take the time, but if you consider the tradeoff of spending 10 minutes to close the blinds, lie down, and relax when you feel a headache forming, that might be better use of your time than being incapacitated later on after it gets worse,” she says.
Mark W. Green, MD, director of the Center for Headache and Pain Medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, agrees. He recommends lying down in a dark, well-ventilated room. If you can, he adds, try to sleep for an hour or so. “Rather than fighting sleep and making things worse, this can be a great treatment.”
Health.com: 27 Mistakes Healthy People Make
Eat small, frequent meals
If you haven’t eaten anything in a while, that aching or fuzzy feeling may be a result of low blood sugar. In this case, eating something right away could nip the nagging sensation in the bud. Some research suggests that foods rich in magnesium, such as spinach, tofu, olive oil, or sunflower or pumpkin seeds, may be especially helpful.
In general, Dr. Green advises his headache patients to graze on small meals throughout the day, rather than three large ones at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. “This way your blood sugar stays more consistent and you won’t experience those types of crashes.”
Ice your forehead
Lying down with a chilly wet washcloth or cold compress over your forehead or eyes may provide temporary relief from a nagging headache, and may even help it disappear completely, says Dr. Loder. “You can also make little ice popsicles in the freezer and rub the forehead or temples for up to 10 minutes,” she says. Many people think that ice dulls pain by shrinking blood vessels, but Dr. Loder says that in the case of headaches, it’s more likely a “counterirritation” effect: “If your brain is paying attention to the cold stimulus, it’s not paying attention to the pain.” But regardless of how it works, she says, it can be a useful and effective ritual for people who have recurring head pain.
Take a hot shower
People tend to prefer cold over heat when it comes to topical headache treatments, but sometimes a steamy shower may be just what you need, says Dr. Green. “People who wake up with head pain—and that’s not rare, by the way—often try to stay in bed and pretend it’s not real, or hope that it will go away.” That almost never works, he says. What can help is getting your day started with a cup of coffee (if you’re a regular coffee drinker), a bit of breakfast, and a hot shower to wake you up. If your headache is related to a cold or sinus pressure, he adds, the moist, warm air can clear your nasal passages as well.
Health.com: 13 Everyday Habits That Are Aging You
Get a massage
One of the most low-tech and old-fashioned ways to treat a headache is still one of the most effective, says Dr. Loder. “Many people find that gentle pressure on the temples can, at least temporarily, relieve pain.” In fact, any type of rubdown may help relieve or prevent headaches. In a study from New Zealand, migraine sufferers had less frequent pain and slept better during weeks they received massages than others who didn’t. And a 2010 Spanish study found that patients with recurring tension headaches reported better psychological states, reduced stress, and fewer symptoms within 24 hours after receiving a 30-minute massage.
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine practices, applying pressure to a point on the hand between the thumb and index finger can help relieve headache pain. Simply squeeze the indentation between the two digits with the thumb and index finger of your opposite hand and massage in a circular motion for five minutes, then switch hands. “It’s certainly a harmless thing to try, and at the very least it’s a distraction from the pain,” says Dr. Loder, who adds that it may also he helpful to rub ice on this spot for a few minutes. You could also try acupuncture. The technique, which uses long needles inserted into the skin to stimulate trigger points throughout the body, has been shown to help prevent migraines as well as frequent tension-type headaches.
Go easy on the alcohol
This may be the most obvious one of the bunch, at least to anyone who’s ever had one too many cocktails and answered for it the next day. The most significant factor is how drunk you get, though research suggests that darker liquors may make hangovers worse. Dehydration also plays a role, so be sure to sip water along with your beverage of choice.
For people who are sensitive to headaches or migraines, however, even just a small amount of alcohol can trigger a painful attack, says Dr. Green. “Anyone will get a headache if they drink a whole bottle of wine, but there are lots of people who will get a headache just from one glass,” Dr. Green says. “For those people, it’s all about learning to recognize their triggers and knowing when to stop.”
Headache is one of the first signs of dehydration. To make sure you’re drinking enough fluids, try to consume them throughout the day, rather than just guzzling them down at meal times or during periods of heavy physical activity, suggests Dr. Green. Institute of Medicine guidelines say that adults should consume between 11 and 15 cups of water a day, but that also counts liquid from other sources—like low-calorie liquids (tea and skim or low-fat milk, for example) as well as fruits and vegetables. Even moderate coffee consumption contributes to your daily fluid intake; a 2014 study published in PLoS One debunked the long-standing theory that its caffeine content contributed to dehydration.
Health.com: 13 Shockingly Salty Foods
Maintain a healthy weight
Being significantly overweight may increase a person’s chances of having recurring migraines, according to a 2013 study from Johns Hopkins University. The finding was especially true for women, white people, and those 50 and younger. “We also know that being obese can turn episodic headaches into chronic headaches,” says Dr. Green. “It’s one of the major risk factors we worry about.” Losing weight through diet and regular exercise—or keeping your weight healthy if you’re already there—can go a long way in preventing headaches from happening more frequently.
Keep stress levels low
According to a 2014 German study, the more stress you have in your life, the more headaches you’re likely to get. Participants ranked their stress levels from one to 100, and also reported the frequency and types of headaches they experienced. For every increase of 10 points on the stress scale, the average number of headaches per month increased 6.3% for tension headaches and 4.3% for migraines. “Psychological stress can cause all kinds of physical tension that you may not even be aware of,” explains Dr. Loder. She recommends taking frequent breaks from stressful situations and relaxing with something you enjoy. “It can be yoga, meditation, or a hobby of some sort, like gardening—whatever you find to be calming and that takes your mind off of your worries.”
Have some caffeine (but not too much)
“Having a cup of coffee at the first sign of a headache is an old trick, because caffeine has a mild [painkilling] effect and can be very useful in the early stages,” says Dr. Loder. “But it’s important to not overdo it, because you can build up a tolerance for it.” Caffeine is a double-edge sword, she explains: If you consume too much, too regularly, you will experience withdrawal on the days you don’t get it. “Keep your regular intake fairly low so that when you need it intermittently you can pull it out as a secret weapon,” she says. “If you’re regularly drinking six or seven cups a day, you’re kidding yourself if you think an extra one is going to do you any good.”
Take computer breaks
Eyestrain on its own isn’t usually a cause of bad headaches, says Dr. Loder, but she believes that spending long hours in front of a computer can make people more susceptible to them. “It hasn’t been well studied, but having talked with many patients, I believe that very prolonged and intense periods of mental concentration can contribute to headaches,” she says. Paying attention to ergonomics at your workspace can help reduce strain on the neck, she says, and taking frequent breaks—every 30 minutes or so, to stretch and look away from your computer screen—can reduce eyestrain and muscle stiffness.
Stay out of the sun
Heading to the beach on a sunny summer afternoon? Pack plenty of fluids and a beach umbrella if you’re prone to migraines. According to a 2009 Harvard University study, a person’s risk of having a severe headache goes up 7.5% for every 5-degree-Celsius rise in temperature. “Bright sunlight, heat, and dehydration probably all play a role in this type of pain,” says Dr. Green. Wearing sunglasses can help, he says, as can seeking shade—or air conditioning—when you feel yourself getting overheated.
A vigorous workout while you’re in the throes of a bad headache may not be a good idea, and in fact, an increased pulse may actually make the pressure or the pounding worse, says Dr. Green. But during the times you’re headache-free, regular exercise is a good way to help you stay that way. One 2009 Swedish study found that migraine patients experienced fewer and less intense headache episodes after they adopted a regular cycling routine. Other research has suggested that yoga can also help prevent headaches, although Dr. Loder recommends taking caution with hot yoga classes if high temperatures are a known trigger for you.
Spit out your gum
Chronic gum-chewing can contribute to stress on your jaw, suggests a 2014 study from Tel Aviv University. TMJ has been linked to head pain, and researchers found that out of 30 teenage and adolescent participants, 26 saw their headache symptoms improve when they gave up their daily gum-chewing habit. “I’m sure that any sort of prolonged intense muscular contraction in the head or neck region probably could provoke a headache,” says Dr. Loder. Her patients often complain about visiting the dentist, she adds, because keeping their mouths open for so long can give them headaches as well.
Watch out for food triggers
People who get migraines are often told to avoid certain foods, like aged cheese or cured meats made with preservatives, but there’s not a lot of hard evidence behind these claims, says Dr. Loder. “It’s a very difficult thing to study, because it’s hard to disguise from people what they are eating, and their expectations and prior beliefs can play a big role in whether they actually get headaches,” she explains. That being said, Dr. Loder does encourage her patients to pay attention to their dietary choices and to look for patterns that may be associated with headaches. “It’s different for everyone, and if you find something that works or doesn’t work for you, then by all means, do that.” If you suspect certain foods are causing your headaches, try eliminating them and then reintroducing them to your diet one at a time.
Health.com: 15 Foods That Are High in Potassium
Avoid highly stimulating situations
Another common cause of migraines is anything that’s too bright, fast, or flashy, says Dr. Loder: “Loud noise, busy patterns, strong perfumes, watching an action movie in a dark theater—these are all pretty well known headache triggers for some people.” Your best bet is to try to avoid these types of situations when possible.The silver lining, however, may be a 2013 study published in the journal Neurology that found that these common triggers may not be as strong as migraine sufferers think they are. When patients exercised vigorously for an hour and were also exposed to bright or flickering light (all commonly suspected migraine triggers), only 22% developed migraines.
Ride in the front seat
Headaches often go along with motion sickness, especially for people who are prone to queasiness or migraines. And you don’t have to be in a boat or on an airplane, says Dr. Loder: Carsickness is quite common. Motion sickness remedies like Dramamine or supplements containing ginger may help, but so can something as simple as riding in the front seat so you have a good view of the road. “Notice that the driver’s never the one who gets sick,” says Dr. Loder. “The quickest way to get a headache is to sit in the back.” Don’t try to read or watch videos, either, she says; this causes an internal disagreement between your eyes and your ears, which can disrupt balance and cause nausea and headaches.
Keep a regular schedule
“Migraines don’t like change, and it’s often when you’ve deviated from your normal routine that they tend to occur,” says Dr. Green. One of the most common triggers, in fact, is getting too little sleep. A large 2005 study published in the journal Headache found that people who slept an average of six hours a night tended to have significantly more severe and frequent episodes than those who routinely got more shuteye; they also reported more headaches in the morning upon awakening. Don’t go too far in the other direction, though: “Too much sleep can also be a trigger if you’re altering your regular schedule,” says Dr. Green. Your best bet is keeping a consistent bedtime and wake time—yes, even on the weekends.
This technique uses electronic sensors to monitor muscle tension, skin temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure, and aims to teach patients how to control these normally automatic body functions. A 2011 Wake Forest University study found that over time, behavioral therapies like biofeedback are more cost-effective than prescription drugs for recurring headaches. “Biofeedback doesn’t necessarily make you less stressed, but it unlinks the stress from your body’s physiological response to it,” says Dr. Green. Don’t like the idea of being hooked up to electrodes? Consider cognitive behavioral therapy sessions, in which you might learn relaxation strategies such as meditation and deep breathing.
Some research has suggested that certain dietary supplements and vitamins may be helpful in preventing recurring headaches, although different options seem to work for different people. Daily doses of butterbur (also known as Petasites root) were shown to cut migraine frequency in half in one Albert Einstein College of Medicine study; similar results were also found for vitamin B2, or riboflavin, in a German clinical trial. Coenzyme Q10, a vitamin found in meats and seafood, and the mineral magnesium have also been shown to decrease headache frequency. Before taking any new supplement, however, talk to your doctor to be sure it’s safe for your specific medical situation.