A Guide to Headache Remedies
Best for: Soothing stress before a headache starts.
How they work: Simple deep breathing and stretching (neck and shoulder rolls, in particular) relax tense muscles that trigger headaches, says Sheena Aurora, M.D., the director of the Swedish Headache Center, in Seattle. A pulse-point balm with aromatherapeutic ingredients, like peppermint, can help, too. Try Bath by Bettijo Relief Organic Stick ($18.50, bathbybettijo.com). Roll it onto your temples and the back of your neck.
Keep in mind: Stretching also improves poor posture, another possible cause of headaches.
Cold or Heat Therapy
Best for: Medicine-free relief from minor tension headaches (which, unlike migraines, aren’t debilitating).
How it works: Experts aren’t sure precisely why each therapy is effective, but cold slows blood flow and reduces inflammation, and heat increases blood flow; both of these may ease pain. “Go with your personal preference,” says Jason Rosenberg, M.D., the director of the Johns Hopkins Headache Center at Bayview, in Baltimore. Apply a cold compress (a fabric-wrapped cold pack stays cooler longer) or a heating pad wherever you hurt; limit treatment to 15 minutes at a time.
Keep in mind: You can also alternate the two in five-minute increments. Start with cold, then switch to heat.
Best for: Mild tension headaches.
How it works: “One way that caffeine may help is by blocking brain receptors to adenosine, a neurotransmitter that can cause blood vessels to dilate and create pressure,” says Rosenberg. Consuming caffeine constricts those vessels, relieving pain. Sip a cup of coffee at the first sign of a headache.
Keep in mind: This method is effective only if you typically consume less than 150 milligrams of caffeine a day. (That’s about one cup of coffee.) If you usually drink more, your blood vessels won’t be as responsive.
Best for: Those whose headaches are accompanied by an upset stomach.
How it works: “There’s evidence that peppermint may reduce spasms in the gastrointestinal tract, which can relieve headache symptoms,” says Audrey L. Halpern, M.D., the director of the Manhattan Center for Headache and Neurology. What’s more, “neurochemical changes in the brain brought on by headaches can also affect the part of the brain that stimulates nausea,” says Halpern. And peppermint has been shown to ease a queasy stomach.
Keep in mind: If you’re pregnant, talk to your doctor before using any herbal remedy or supplement, including peppermint.
Best for: Headaches that do not respond to other remedies.
How they work: Acetaminophen products, like Tylenol, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), like Aleve and aspirin, decrease inflammation and inhibit chemicals in the brain that produce pain. Experiment to figure out which type works better for you, but use these OTCs only one day a week. Taking them more often than that can cause medication-overuse headaches, says Halpern. To minimize stomach discomfort, take with milk or food.
Keep in mind: For stronger relief, consider a brand that combines an NSAID with caffeine, such as Excedrin. According to the National Headache Foundation, caffeine may help the body absorb the medicine better.
Best for: Chronic tension headaches.
How it works: Tiny needles are inserted into specific points of the body; this can reduce muscle tension and encourages the release of painkilling endorphins, says Jill Blakeway, a licensed acupuncturist in New York City. Research suggests that, for some people, acupuncture may reduce tension-headache frequency by 50 percent or more.
Keep in mind: Studies show that you may need 10 treatments before you start experiencing relief.