For many people in today’s busy world, headaches have become an increasingly common occurrence. Sometimes they are the result of medical conditions, but often, they are simply a result of stress, dehydration, a late work night, or just overdoing it at your spin class.
While there are plenty of treatments to reduce headaches, including over-the-counter ibuprofen or acetaminophen, or prescription headache medications, they don’t always eliminate the symptoms.
And tempting though it may be, the solution isn’t to take more than the recommended dosage. In fact, many common (and super simple) lifestyle habits can help reduce your headache pain without you ever reaching for a pill.
1. Massage therapy
Yes, massages are luxurious, but they’re also incredibly therapeutic. Sometimes headaches result from tension in the upper body due to muscle strain from poor posture or a rigorous workout routine. Massage therapy may be able to reduce chronic pain as well as ease muscle tension that causes headaches. Take the time to research types of massage (Swedish, deep tissue, shiatsu, etc.) and get reliable referrals for a practitioner near you who can effectively address your specific pain points.
2. Hot/cold applications
For muscle tension headaches, hot and/or cold compresses can offer relief. For the cold portion, place ice in a plastic bag covered with a thin cloth to avoid harming your skin. Place the ice pack on your forehead and/or cheeks, basically wherever the greatest source of pain is. Just be sure to limit cold pack applications to no more than 10 minutes at a time.
For the hot portion, you can purchase a heat pack at most drugstores, or make your own using uncooked rice. Take a small pillowcase or piece of fabric and fill it about two-thirds full with uncooked rice. Sew or tie the open end together. When needed, microwave the rice for one minute. Apply to the back of your neck or forehead for heated relief.
Aromatherapy is the study of how certain smells can trigger positive and even healing responses in the brain. Some smells have been reported to soothe and reduce the incidence of headaches. These include peppermint extract, eucalyptus, and lavender oil. They are readily available at many local health food stores or online.
Acupuncture involves applying fine, sharp needles to key areas on the body as a means of promoting energy flow. It is thought to stimulate the body’s natural pain-relieving compounds, and according to the National Institutes of Health, has been shown to reduce headache frequency and severity.
5. Breathing exercises
Yes, breathing. You know, that thing you do all the time already! It may sound silly, but tension-related headaches can sometimes be relieved with regular breathing exercises that help focus your mind and ease your muscles.
Start by finding a quiet place with a comfortable chair in your home, office, or other location where you will not be distracted. Next, take slow, rhythmic breaths, breathing in for five seconds then out for five seconds. As you relax, your muscle tightness reduces. You can also try a progressive relaxation technique by focusing on each major muscle group in your body. Start from your toes and work your way up.
Dehydration can contribute to a headache, but it can be easily avoided. Grabbing a good old fashioned glass of water can help as much as an electrolyte-containing beverage such as Pedialyte, Gatorade, or Powerade. But just as there are drinks that can reduce headaches, there are those that can trigger them.
Drinking too much coffee or too many caffeine-filled soft drinks can lead to headaches. So if you normally start your day with a Starbucks quad latte, you may want to trade it for a toned-down mixture of half caffeinated and half decaffeinated. Alcohol, and particularly red wine, can also lead to dehydration that triggers headaches.
We hear a lot about the health problems caused by lack of sleep, and not getting your nightly minimum can lead to chronic headaches. But knowing you need more sleep and actually getting it are two different things. There are several ways you can improve the amount and quality of your sleep, including the following.
Commit to a sleep schedule. Go to bed and wake up at regular times. Even if you just go to bed 15 minutes earlier or sleep 15 minutes later, this can be a step in the right direction.
Avoid stimulants in the hours before bed. Stimulants like alcohol, sugar, nicotine, and caffeine can keep you from sleeping and keep you up at night with trips to the bathroom. Give your body time to wind down before your head actually hits the pillow.
Choose a relaxing activity before bed. Turn off the television or computer and treat yourself to a good book or a hot bath. It may sound old fashioned, but a little relaxation goes a long way!
8. Adopt a ‘headache diet’
Certain foods, while delicious, have been known to contribute to headaches. Try keeping a “headache diary” of the foods and drinks you consume on a daily basis or specifically when you experience a headache. If you identify a particular trigger, avoid it for some time and see if the headaches reduce. Possible problem foods include:
Caffeine-containing foods and beverages. Examples include chocolate, coffee, cola, and tea.
Monosodium glutamate-containing foods. Common examples include Asian meals and foods like ramen noodles.
Nitrate-containing foods. Most simple meats, such as hot dogs, lunch meat, sausage, and pepperoni can cause headaches.
Tyramine-containing foods. Tyramine is a compound produced by the breakdown of an amino acid called tyrosine, and it’s found in foods like pizza and aged cheeses.
9. Sip soothing teas
The warmth and comfort of a steaming cup of herbal tea makes it an excellent way to wind down at night. Those same soothing qualities can have pain-relieving effects. Because herbs can interact with medical conditions and medications, it’s important to check with a doctor before drinking these teas. Favorites for relaxation include chamomile, ginger, and dandelion.
Rachel Nall is a Tennessee-based critical care nurse and freelance writer. She began her writing career with the Associated Press in Brussels, Belgium. Although she enjoys writing about a variety of topics, healthcare is her practice and passion. Nall is a full-time nurse at a 20-bed intensive care unit focusing primarily on cardiac care. She enjoys educating her patients and readers on how to live healthier and happier lives.