How to Get Rid of a Headache

Experts suggest ways to address the pain, besides taking ibuprofen.

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Headaches are the most common form of pain, according to the National Library of Medicine's MedlinePlus resource.

But there are different types of headaches: Tension headaches, for example, are the most common type of headache and are due to tightness in your shoulders, neck, scalp, and jaw. This type of pain is often brought on by stress, depression, or anxiety.

Other types of headaches include migraines, cluster headaches, and sinus headaches—all of which can usually be remedied by lifestyle changes or pain relievers.

You may take an ibuprofen every time you feel the pain coming on. And while those nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are typically the first route to getting rid of the pain in your head, they're not the only option. If your headaches are persistent or medications just aren't cutting it, you can consider other treatments.

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Biofeedback

Biofeedback uses electronic sensors to monitor bodily functions such as muscle tension, skin temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure. Data is fed back to the patient through sounds or computer images. The goal is to teach people how to control bodily responses—easing tight muscles, for example—to prevent headache pain.

Studies have shown biofeedback could be effective for migraine and tension-type headaches, according to a May 2017 review published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).

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Acupuncture

In acupuncture, thin needles are inserted under the skin to realign the flow of energy, or qi, in the body. Many insurance plans cover accupuncture. Without insurance, as of May 2022, treatments ran $60-$120 per session, according to Acufinder.com, an acupuncture referral service.

The 2017 review from BMJ found acupuncture to be effective for headaches and chronic pain. It also noted that the practice, a key component of traditional Chinese medicine, has been used for more than 2,500 years.

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Massage

For temporary relief, try rubbing your temples or getting a neck, back, head, or shoulder massage.

According to a May 2019 study in the journal Headache, massage may be effective for both tension and migraine headaches. However, at the time of publication, only a few studies had been conducted, with small sample sizes.

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Stretching

Headache-relieving stretches can get at muscle tension that contributes to pain. Add them to your workout or use them when a headache looms.

Try these three: neck range of motion (chin forward, upward, and toward each shoulder); shoulder shrugs (shrug up, up and forward, and up and back); and neck isometrics (press your palm into your forehead and hold; press a hand on each side of the head).

Stretch twice a day for 20 minutes per session. Hold the stretch for five seconds, relax for five seconds, and repeat each stretch three to five times.

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Meditation

Various meditation techniques can be used to focus attention and quiet the mind from distractions such as chronic pain.

Studies have shown the effectiveness of mindfulness-based meditation to reduce chronic pain, according to the 2019 BMJ article. Another review, published in April 2018 in the Chinese Medical Journal, found that mindfulness meditation may reduce the intensity of headaches.

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Yoga

Yoga combines physical postures, breathing exercises, and meditation to boost relaxation and balance the mind, body, and spirit, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).

The practice may help with both tension and migraine headaches, according to some preliminary 2020 evidence, per the NCCIH. The effects extended to headache frequency and duration, as well as pain intensity, especially for tension headache patients.

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Relaxation Exercises

Deep breathing, relaxing to music, or using mental imagery can help people unwind, which may help with headache too. Additional research is needed, but the 2019 BMJ review noted the benefits of relaxation in at least one clinical trial.

Edmund Messina, MD, medical director of the Michigan Headache and Neurology Clinic in East Lansing, has taught a 20-minute muscle-relaxation technique. Patients lie still, breathe in and out slowly, and use a mantra to keep the mind from wandering. Then, they contract and relax various muscle groups, working from the toes to the head. "The idea is to consciously tense and relax your muscle groups," said Dr. Messina.

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Heat and Cold

Anyone can use this no-risk headache therapy—even pregnant women.

To alleviate neck tightness, apply heat to the back of the neck, said Dr. Messina. For a pulsating headache, however, skip the heat and try icing the temples.

The artery that supplies blood to the dura (the lining of the brain) sits behind the thin bone at the temple. "That dura gets mighty angry and inflamed when you're having a migraine," he said. Lowering the temperature of the blood passing through that area "seems to relieve some of the throbbing."

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Avoid Nitrates and Nitrites

Nitrites and nitrates in processed meats and monosodium glutamate (MSG) used in foods as a flavor enhancer have been linked to migraines. Some heart medicines also contain nitrate.

Caffeine, alcohol, phenylethylamine (found in chocolate and cheese), tyramine (found in nuts and fermented meats, cheeses, and soy), and aspartame (in many artificially sweetened foods) are headache triggers for some.

Some healthcare providers support taking riboflavin (vitamin B2), magnesium, and coenzyme Q10, among other supplements, as part of a headache-relief strategy. But the evidence is scarce on their effectiveness, and they do carry risks of side effects.

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Botox

Better known as a wrinkle-reducer, Botox injections are FDA-approved for treating adults with chronic migraines.

Multiple injections are given around the head and neck every 12 weeks. Some insurance companies cover the injections for people who have failed to get relief from other migraine medicines.

In order to qualify for Botox treatment, you need to be diagnosed with a chronic migraine, which means a headache at least 15 days a month for more than three months, with a migraine specifically at least eight out of those 15 days, according to a December 2020 review from the journal Toxins.

That same review said that Botox therapy is better tolerated by patients than some oral migraine preventive drugs.

But not everyone is on board with this type of therapy. "Botox produces euphoria in those who bill for it, but I've never seen it work," said Dr. Messina.

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Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)

Delivering magnetic pulses to the brain may become a useful therapy for zapping migraines, research suggested. A February 2022 review published in Current Pain and Headache Reports found that TMS was helpful in treating migraines with auras in three separate trials.

The review noted that TMS could be a good option for people who didn't get relief from other treatments for aura prevention, such as medication. In 2018, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cleared a TMS device for use in treatment and prevention of migraines.

This noninvasive treatment takes one or two hours and is conducted in a clinic by placing an electromagnetic coil near the head to deliver the pulses.

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