Many people turn to over-the-counter pain medications to get rid of a headache, but it can be possible to relieve a headache without medication. For example, relaxation techniques, acupressure, or warm compresses are all home remedies that can help combat headache symptoms and give you some relief.
Here’s what you should know about headaches and how to treat the symptoms naturally.
What is a headache?
A headache is when you feel pain in the head or face. There are different types of headaches with varying causes, such as:
- Tension headaches often feel like a dull, aching head pain and tightness across your forehead. These are often caused by stress.
- Migraine headaches feel like intense throbbing in one part of the head. These can also be caused by stress or by strong stimuli in your environment, like bright lights and intense smells.
- Cluster headaches often manifest as intense pain behind the eye and are similar to migraine headaches.
- Sinus headaches often feel like pressure around your forehead, cheeks, and eyes.
This is usually a sign that you have some nasal or sinus congestion and may be a sign of a sinus infection.
The following are some simple strategies you can try at home to help relieve these types of headaches:
1. Use a cold or hot compress
For headaches with radiating pain that starts in one area and spreads to another, like migraine headaches, cold compresses can be placed over the spot from which the pain originates, says Michael Devine, MD, internal medicine doctor, and geriatrician with Devine Concierge Medicine, a primary care practice in Philadelphia.
Cold temperatures have a numbing effect, which can dull the pain. They can also constrict the blood vessels, which may help relieve migraines. You can make your own cold compress by placing a damp towel in the freezer for about 10 minutes. An ice pack would also work.
Heat is better suited for tension headaches, Devine says, which often manifest as dull, aching head pain and a feeling of tightness across your forehead.
Tensions headaches are typically caused by stress and relaxing stiff neck and shoulder muscles can help relieve this type of headache. For example, heat packs or a hot towel can be draped over the neck and shoulder muscles to help relax the muscles.
2. Try acupressure
Acupressure is the act of applying firm pressure to certain parts of the body for one to two minutes at a time.
This is most helpful at the back of your neck or base of your skull, and helps relax tension in the stabilizer muscles located in the neck that are often affected in tension headaches, Devine says. You can do this yourself at home. For example, you can follow these steps from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center:
- On your left hand, find the space between the base of your thumb and index finger. This space is known as pressure point LI-4 or Hegu.
- Using your right thumb and index finger, press down on this point. Slowly move your thumb in a circle as you apply pressure. You should be firm, but don’t hurt yourself.
- Find the same space on your right hand, and with your left thumb and index finger, repeat this process for another five minutes.
3. Practice relaxation techniques
Relaxation techniques — like yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises — can also be helpful in managing certain headaches, especially cluster headaches.
Cluster headaches, which often manifest as intense pain behind the eye, can often be relieved with deep breathing exercises, Devine says. For example, you can practice a breathing exercise known as rhythmic breathing by taking long, slow breaths and slowly counting to five as you inhale and exhale.
In addition, tension headaches and migraine headaches are often related to stress, Devine says. Yoga and meditation can be particularly helpful with these types of headaches because they can help relax the body and reduce stress over time.
4. Improve your diet
Foods containing phenylalanine and tyramine may increase the frequency of migraine headaches for some people. Phenylalanine is an amino acid often found in:
- Artificial sweeteners
- MSG and nitrate-containing foods like processed meats and hot dogs
Tyramine is a compound produced by the breakdown of amino acids and is often found in:
- Smoked or fermented foods
- Alcoholic beverages
- Strong or aged cheeses, like parmesan and blue cheese
To prevent headaches, Devine suggests eating three to four small meals throughout the day instead of one to two large meals. Foods rich in protein and dietary fiber, like almonds and cherries, may also help ward off headaches.
5. Stay hydrated
Drinking more water — and less dehydrating beverages, like alcohol or coffee — can also help prevent headaches.
Devine recommends drinking an 8 to 16-ounce glass of water every two to three hours when you start to notice a headache coming on, as migraine headaches often respond well to this approach.
In addition, caffeine could be a possible headache culprit, especially if it’s something you used to consume regularly but then stopped or cut back. Caffeine is tricky because it can help certain headaches, like migraines, but drinking too much of it can also lead to dehydration, which can also cause headaches.
Alcohol can also be a migraine trigger, especially if you are stressed or anxious, according to the American Migraine Foundation. Alcoholic beverages can also dehydrate you and cause a headache the next day.