Treating Headaches Alternatively
(BlackDoctor.org) — Americans spend a lot of time at the doctor’s office looking for headache relief. Headaches account for more than 8 million doctor visits every year. And many of those headaches are chronic — occurring more than 15 days per month, for longer than three months.
Some headaches are migraines, and others are commonly caused by tension or neck pain.
Although headache treatment often involves taking pain pills, this type of relief carries with it the risk of side effects, rebound headaches (headaches brought on by taking too much medication), and addiction (like opioids, or narcotics). Some headache medication also has limited use for pregnant women and children. Consequently, many doctors and headache patients have become interested in alternative headache treatment.
Alternative Medicine for Headache Relief
According to Ellen Drexler, MD, director of the headache center at Maimonides Medical Center in New York City, “Avoidance or management of stress, relaxation exercises, yoga, meditation, and other alternative medicine treatments can certainly be effective for many people, since stress is such a common headache trigger.”
According to guidelines published by the National Headache Foundation (NHF), once you have an accurate headache diagnosis and have been assured that your pain is not related to any other serious condition, your headache treatment can be improved by the addition of alternative therapies.
• Hands-on approach. Massage, chiropractic, physical therapy, and the application of hot and cold compresses are alternative medical treatments used to relieve chronic headaches. Although these therapies are difficult to study in clinical trials, they have been effective for some patients. Massage therapy may be particularly helpful for relieving stress and muscle tension-related headaches.
• Sound body, sound mind. The benefits of exercise include better sleep, and routine exercise may also increase your brain’s ability to regulate pain. The NHF guidelines encourage regular exercise as part of a headache treatment plan. For example, yoga combines physical poses with relaxation, meditation, and breathing techniques. Yoga exercises may be useful in the prevention and treatment of headaches by reducing stress as well as improving the circulation and supply of oxygen to your brain and muscles.
• Herbal treatments. Some people think that herbal remedies are safer than prescription medication. However, it’s important to remember that commercially available formulations of these remedies generally have no official oversight, and some of them do have side effects. Two herbal remedies that have been found to be safe and effective by the NHF are feverfew and butterbur root extract. Feverfew, a European flower, has been shown to be somewhat effective for treating migraines and very safe in two clinical trials; butterbur root also passed two trials for safety and effectiveness in headache treatment. Ginger is receiving attention as a migraine treatment because it has some antihistamine and anti-inflammatory properties, although more research needs to be done.
• Mind-body techniques. Relaxation training, shown to be effective in relieving tension headaches, involves progressive muscle relaxation combined with breathing exercises or guided imagery. Relaxation training often works well with biofeedback — the use of equipment to train a person to control certain body functions like muscle tension, temperature, and brain activity in order to reduce stress and alleviate pain. The combination is useful in migraine headache treatment for children and adults.
• Acupuncture. Studies show that some patients experience significant pain relief from the ancient Chinese therapy of acupuncture, which follows the theory of regulating how your “qi,” or vital energy, flows. Some evidence indicates that acupuncture works by releasing endorphins, brain chemicals that relieve stress and pain, in the brain. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine is sponsoring additional research on the connection between acupuncture and pain relief, including headache.
• Botox. Botox (botuloinum toxin type A) causes paralysis of muscles and is responsible for the paralysis seen in botulism poisoning. Botox was first approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1989 to treat facial spasms and then, in 2002, for the treatment of wrinkles. One of the unexpected side effects was relief from chronic headache pain. As a headache treatment, Botox is injected into muscles of the head and neck, and studies show that it can relieve headache pain for about three months. Getting Started With Alternative Medicine for Headache
Remember that not all alternative medicines have been studied adequately. “The data on the effectiveness of these approaches are mixed. One obstacle is patient motivation and persistence in using these techniques,” warns Dr. Drexler.
Drexler says that patients should keep in mind that making lifestyle changes can help relieve their headache symptoms. These changes might include:
• Getting adequate sleep at the same time each day
• Eating regular meals
• Staying well hydrated Getting regular aerobic exercise
• Avoiding caffeine and alcohol
If you are considering any alternative medicine for headache treatment, always talk to your doctor first. Make sure no other treatable health conditions are causing your headaches and that an alternative therapy will not negatively interact with any medication you may be taking.