What do I need to know about alternative and complementary headache therapies?

The terms alternative medicine and complementary medicine refer to therapies that are not considered mainstream. This means they're not yet common medical practice. Or if the terms are used to refer to drugs or devices, they are drugs or devices that haven't met testing guidelines required by the US Food and Drug Administration.

Several alternative treatments are commonly used to ease headaches. Some are meant to reduce the number of headaches you have. Others are intended to help relieve the symptoms of a headache once it starts. You may already be considering one or more of these approaches. But before you start any alternative treatment, talk with your medical doctor. Be sure you understand what, if any, effect the treatment will have on the rest of your treatment plan. Ask questions such as the following:



  • Will the therapy interfere with my medications?
  • What should I do if my headaches get worse after I start the treatments?
  • Could the treatment be harmful if I have other medical conditions?
  • If I am pregnant or nursing, is the treatment safe for both me and my baby?

The final choice about how to manage your headaches is always yours. But your doctor can make sure you have the information you need to choose wisely.

The following are some of the more common alternative treatments people have tried to relieve or prevent headache pain.

Acupuncture. Acupuncture has been practiced in China for more than 2,500 years and is part of traditional Chinese medicine, or TCM. The technique involves the use of hair-thin needles that are inserted into specific points on your body. By stimulating those points, the therapist aims to restore a proper flow of energy. The practitioner, known as an acupuncturist, may also use heat, pressure, or electrical current to stimulate those points. While the principles on which this therapy is based are not part of Western medicine, there is some scientific evidence that acupuncture is effective when used for pain. Whether or not it is useful for treating headaches, though, is not entirely clear.

Aromatherapy. Aromatherapy uses oils extracted from plants, trees, and herbs. The idea is that the smell that comes from those oils has the power to stimulate pleasant memories that can relieve stress and make you feel better. There is very little evidence for the effectiveness of aromatherapy in relieving headache pain. Some evidence does exist, though, that it may be useful in relieving stress.

Biofeedback. Biofeedback teaches people techniques that allow them to control those body functions that occur unconsciously, such as breathing. The healthcare provider connects the person to a device that picks up electrical or other signals from the body. The person then receives sound or visual cues from the device that show any changes in unconscious body activities, such as those involving the muscles, skin, heart, and sweat glands. Over time, people can learn to detect sensations from the body and control them through mind-body techniques such as visualization or relaxation.

Research shows that biofeedback can relieve stress and enhance sleep. Unlike many other types of alternative therapies, there are no side effects reported with biofeedback.

While the best way to learn biofeedback is to work with a trained therapist, you can practice some techniques on your own. One such technique that is said to help relieve headaches is thermal biofeedback. This technique uses skin temperature as an indication of how well you are able to control the flow of blood in your body.

Chiropractic. Chiropractic theory says that misalignment of the spinal bones, or vertebrae, causes problems. A chiropractor manipulates the vertebrae in order to restore proper alignment. When alignment is restored, according to chiropractic theory, so is the proper functioning of nerves, joints, and muscles. That, in turn, is supposed to reduce pain. While some people claim they've gotten relief from chiropractic, medical research has not shown that it has any effect on reducing headache pain.

Cognitive-behavioral, or stress management, interventions. The goal of this treatment is to change the way you cope with everyday stresses and headaches. Difficulty coping can make headaches worse, increasing your disability and distress. The idea is to learn to control how you feel and act when you get a headache or are stressed. While the approaches employed have been shown to have some benefit in relieving headache, the treatment requires a skilled therapist. Consequently, one of its major drawbacks is how expensive it is.

Herbal remedies and supplements. Herbal remedies and supplements include vitamins, minerals, and plant extracts. Some people see them as desirable alternatives to using what they consider to be unnatural medications. The underlying belief is that these remedies help the body heal through natural processes. There aren't enough scientific studies of supplements and herbal remedies to prove that they have any effect on headaches. Also, because neither the quality nor the use is regulated, some remedies could actually be harmful, especially if you take them with other medications or take them while you have certain health conditions. Always discuss the use of herbal remedies and supplements with your doctor before you start a course of treatment.

Hypnotherapy. Hypnotherapy uses suggestion to influence the subconscious. It addresses problems involving emotions, habits, and the body's involuntary responses. It can be effective in relieving all types of pain. In fact, it is even used as anesthesia for dental procedures, childbirth, and some types of surgery. It has also been used to reduce anxiety, tension, and depression. While there have only been a few small studies of its use for headaches, those studies have suggested it can be an effective way to control some headache pain.

Relaxation training. Relaxation has a physical effect on the body. It lowers blood pressure, reduces breathing and pulse rates, and releases muscle tension. It also reduces stress and eases emotional strain. It uses techniques such as exercise, deep breathing, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation to trigger the relaxation response. Relaxation training can be a very effective way to reduce both the frequency and severity of headache pain. That's because stress and muscle tension can cause tension-type headaches. They can also trigger migraine and cluster headaches. You can learn relaxation techniques from a trained therapist. You can also learn them and practice them on your own. Learn to relax and start using relaxation training on your own.

TENS. TENS stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. It is a method of relieving pain by applying tiny electrical impulses to nerve endings beneath the skin. TENS theory says that the electric current overwhelms pain messages from the nerves to the brain. Unfortunately, there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that it is effective in relieving headaches.

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