Alternative medicine

By Mayo Clinic Staff

For many people, complementary or alternative therapies offer welcome relief from headache pain. It's important to be cautious, however. Not all complementary or alternative therapies have been studied as headache treatments, and others need further research.

  • Acupuncture. This ancient technique uses fine needles to promote the release of natural painkillers and other chemicals in the central nervous system. There is some evidence that it can help control headaches and other conditions that cause chronic pain.
  • Hypnosis. During a hypnosis session, a trained hypnotist might suggest ways to decrease your perception of pain and increase your ability to cope with it — such as visualizing a calm, safe place when a headache strikes.
  • Biofeedback. Biofeedback teaches you to control certain body responses that help reduce pain. During a biofeedback session, you're connected to devices that monitor and give you feedback on body functions, such as muscle tension, heart rate and blood pressure. You then learn how to reduce muscle tension and slow your heart rate and breathing to help you enter a relaxed state, which may help you to better cope with pain.
  • Massage. Massage can reduce stress, relieve tension and promote relaxation. Although its value as a headache treatment hasn't been fully determined, massage may be particularly helpful if you have tight, tender muscles in the back of your head, neck and shoulders.
  • Herbs, vitamins and minerals. Some dietary supplements — including magnesium, feverfew and butterbur — seem to help prevent or treat some types of headaches, but there's little scientific support for these claims and there's often no long-term safety data available. If you're considering using supplements to treat headaches, check with your doctor. Some supplements may interfere with the effectiveness of prescription or over-the-counter drugs or have other harmful effects.
  • Chiropractic care. Spinal manipulation can effectively treat some types of pain, but studies don't support claims that chiropractic care relieves headaches. Chiropractic manipulation of the neck has been associated with injury to the blood vessels supplying the brain. Rarely, this may cause a stroke.

If you'd like to try a complementary or alternative therapy, discuss the risks and benefits with your doctor.

Dec. 09, 2011