Anyone who’s ever had a headache (and that’s 90 percent of the entire population, according to some estimates) knows that they can range from nagging to debilitating. The most common type is a tension headache, a mild, constricting feeling around your head that’s often caused by holding your neck in a tight position. Migraines, on the other hand, tend to be both intense and recurring. Medication is one way to treat your discomfort, but there are also plenty of natural ways—like the 21 tricks listed here—that can help you head off the ache.
Headaches are often a sign that your body needs a break, says Dr. Elizabeth Loder, chief of the headache and pain division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and President of the American Headache Society. “Many people are very busy and are reluctant to take the time, but if you consider the tradeoff of spending 10 minutes to close the blinds, lie down, and relax when you feel a headache forming, that might be better use of your time than being incapacitated later on after it gets worse,” she says.
Dr. Mark W. Green, director of the Center for Headache and Pain Medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, agrees. He recommends lying down in a dark, well-ventilated room. If you can, he adds, try to sleep for an hour or so. “Rather than fighting sleep and making things worse, this can be a great treatment.”
Eat small, frequent meals
If you haven’t eaten anything in a while, that aching or fuzzy feeling may be a result of low blood sugar. In this case, eating something right away could nip the nagging sensation in the bud. Some research suggests that foods rich in magnesium, such as spinach, tofu, olive oil, or sunflower or pumpkin seeds, may be especially helpful.
In general, Green advises his headache patients to graze on small meals throughout the day, rather than three large ones at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. “This way your blood sugar stays more consistent and you won’t experience those types of crashes.”
Ice your forehead
Lying down with a chilly wet washcloth or cold compress over your forehead or eyes may provide temporary relief from a nagging headache, and may even help it disappear completely, Loder said. “You can also make little ice popsicles in the freezer and rub the forehead or temples for up to 10 minutes,” she says. Many people think that ice dulls pain by shrinking blood vessels, but Loder says that in the case of headaches, it’s more likely a “counterirritation” effect: “If your brain is paying attention to the cold stimulus, it’s not paying attention to the pain.” But regardless of how it works, she says, it can be a useful and effective ritual for people who have recurring head pain.
Take a hot shower
People tend to prefer cold over heat when it comes to topical headache treatments, but sometimes a steamy shower may be just what you need, Green said. “People who wake up with head pain—and that’s not rare, by the way—often try to stay in bed and pretend it’s not real, or hope that it will go away.” That almost never works, he says. What can help is getting your day started with a cup of coffee (if you’re a regular coffee drinker), a bit of breakfast, and a hot shower to wake you up. If your headache is related to a cold or sinus pressure, he adds, the moist, warm air can clear your nasal passages as well.
Get a massage
One of the most low-tech and old-fashioned ways to treat a headache is still one of the most effective, Loder said. “Many people find that gentle pressure on the temples can, at least temporarily, relieve pain.” In fact, any type of rubdown may help relieve or prevent headaches. In a study from New Zealand, migraine sufferers had less frequent pain and slept better during weeks they received massages than others who didn’t. And a 2010 Spanish study found that patients with recurring tension headaches reported better psychological states, reduced stress, and fewer symptoms within 24 hours after receiving a 30-minute massage.
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine practices, applying pressure to a point on the hand between the thumb and index finger can help relieve headache pain. Simply squeeze the indentation between the two digits with the thumb and index finger of your opposite hand and massage in a circular motion for five minutes, then switch hands. “It’s certainly a harmless thing to try, and at the very least it’s a distraction from the pain,” Loder said, who added that it may also be helpful to rub ice on this spot for a few minutes. You could also try acupuncture. The technique, which uses long needles inserted into the skin to stimulate trigger points throughout the body, has been shown to help prevent migraines as well as frequent tension-type headaches.
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