Migraines and tension headaches are two of the most painful types of headaches — and two of the most common.
Though many people depend on prescription medicine to ease the pain, there are several more natural strategies. These methods can help you head off a pounding headache before the symptoms even start creeping up. Even if they may not work every time, they are certainly worth a try, says physician and neurologist Romie Mushtaq, MD, director of the Center for Natural and Integrative Medicine in Orlando, Fla. And an expert in the field of mind-body medicine.
Relieving your own daily stress is one step in the right direction, but there are others. "If we can alter our threshold on how we even perceive stress, we can decrease the number of tension headaches and migraines," says Mushtaq.
Stop Headaches Before They Start
The most common of all types, a tension headache causes painful pressure in the neck and head area. The pressure stems from muscles contracting and tightening above the neck. "A tension headache can be very different for different people," Mushtaq says. "Traditionally, the pain is located in the forehead and radiates to the top of the head and back the down of the neck." Try out the following actions to reduce the likelihood of experiencing a tension headache.
- Ease stress. Tension headaches usually last no more than 24 hours, but can seem like they have lasted a week. Those affected by stress are more likely to get these, Mushtaq says. To decrease the odds, lower your muscular tension and anxiety with meditation, a gentle yoga practice or stretching routine.
- Meditate, reflect or pray. These strategies can help you relax and react less to stress. You don't need to do a lengthy session either. Mustaq recommends to meditate, reflect or pray for “as long as it takes to stop thoughts from racing around.''
- Get a good night’s sleep. Specifically, try for eight or nine hours a night. In one study published in Cephalalgia, doctors found that headache patients may physiologically need more hours of sleep than healthy people, and that getting insufficient sleep can also increase your pain sensitivity.
- Nibble throughout the day. Research shows that eating your meals on a regular schedule and also nibbling on healthy snacks through the day helps keep your blood sugar levels steady. "Low blood sugar and tension headaches are very directly related so we want to avoid that," Mushtaq says.
Skip Certain Foods
Migraines and other types of headaches can come on suddenly, with a moderate to severe throbbing or pounding in the head — either on one side or both.
One of the most important prevention techniques is learning what your personal food triggers are for headaches and then avoiding them at all costs. Of course, this can be is much easier said than done. "Trying to find your personalized trigger is like trying to pin down a drop of water in the ocean," Mushtaq says.
To complicate the issue, she says, there may be more than one trigger, and it may be unusual. "We hear about the common ones, like chocolate and wine," she says. "But, all types of alcohol can trigger a migraine. There are triggers that people wouldn't think of, such as nitrates found in processed meat and other foods, preservatives in frozen meals."
According to a study published in Neurological Science, alcohol, chocolate and cheese, along with dietary fasting (i.e., skipping meals frequently)are common culprits. To pin down your own trigger, keep a headache diary so it will become obvious what came before the pain. Afterward, modify your daily routine so that you can avoid the trigger.
Herbal preparations can reduce the chances of a migraine. The strongest evidence is for butterbur, Mushtaq says. Butterbur is an herb often used to make medicine. Feverfew (another medicinal herb), magnesium supplements, acupuncture and exercise may also help.
- How else can you sidestep headaches? Our expert advice includes: See your doctor to rule out possible underlying causes. These might include sinus conditions or a head injury. But don't worry, most headaches are actually not warnings of other serious conditions.
- Don't expect your doctor to order a brain scan automatically. According to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, anxious headache patients may be a driving force for overuse of neuroimaging, and guidelines recommend against routine neuroimaging in patients with headaches.
- If stress is a factor, see what your doctor recommends for stress reduction.
- Ask your doctor about whether using a new headband-like device, recently FDA-approved, may help. Called Cefaly, it applies a small electrical current to skin and tissues. This, in turn, stimulates the trigeminal nerve (i.e., a nerve responsible for motor functions such as chewing and biting), which is known to be linked with migraine pain.
If a loved one has frequent headaches, help them evaluate the situation. When did the headaches start? Might headaches be an avoidable side effect of a new medication?
Suggest going to the doctor to get a physical exam and to rule out other possible causes. You might also try to help your loved one with the insomnia or excess stress that may be triggering headaches in the first place.