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Complementary and Alternative Treatments for Chronic Headaches

Using CAM to Treat Chronic Headache Pain


Updated April 24, 2009

While they are perhaps the most common approach used to treat chronic headaches, pharmaceuticals are not the only effective treatments for headache pain. Many people fine relief from their headaches through complementary and alternative treatments.

Complementary Versus Alternative

We often here these words used interchangeably, but there is a difference between complementary and alternative treatments for chronic headache pain. The difference does not lie in the actual treatment, but in how it is used. Complementary medicine is used as an additional treatment, in conjunction with more traditional pain management approaches. Alternative medicine, on the other hand, is used in lieu of traditional medications.

To make things easier, this refers to them both together simply as complementary and alternative medications (CAM).

Types of CAM

There are a number of CAM treatments used to control chronic headache pain. Here are some of the more popular approaches to decreasing headache pain.

  • Yoga -- Yoga is a wonderful, low-impact form of exercise that benefits both the body and the mind. Some yoga postures, such as easy pose, and breathing techniques are thought to help headache and migraine pain in particular. Look for a local beginner’s yoga class near you. A word of caution when taking your first yoga class: be sure to inform your instructor that you suffer from chronic headaches, as she may prefer to modify some poses just for you.

  • Relaxation -- Muscle tension can intensify headache pain, making the experience far worse. This may be avoided by learning to relax your muscles, particularly those muscles around the head, neck and shoulders. There are many forms of relaxation, including guided imagery, deep breathing and meditation. If you aren’t feeling particularly new-agey, try running a warm tub with some aromatic bath salts. The way you relax is not as important; what is important is how effective your method is for you.

  • Acupuncture -- During acupuncture, small needles are placed on trigger points in order to release blocked energy, known as qi, often thought to be the cause of many ailments including headaches. Some acupuncturists employ other techniques such as running a light current through the needles, or using herbs and locally-directed heat as part of treatment. Many people who suffer from chronic headaches find relief through regular acupuncture treatments.

  • Hypnosis -- A form of relaxation and meditation, hypnosis can change the way you perceive and think about your headache pain. Hypnosis is often misunderstood because of its reputation, but it can actually be a powerful tool in pain management. In addition to controlling headache pain, hypnosis can also help reduce some side effects of migraines, such as nausea. Approach hypnotherapy with an open mind, and you may be pleasantly surprised.

  • Massage -- Ask anyone, and I'd bet they agree that almost nothing is more relaxing than a massage. A massage therapist can work out tension from your neck and shoulders, which is great for relieving the pressure caused by tension headaches. Aromatherapy oils used during massage can also help reduce headache pain.

Does CAM Really Help Control Chronic Headache Pain?

The short answer is yes. The long answer is that CAM options are not necessarily any more effective at controlling chronic headache pain than more traditional treatments. This may lead you to ask: Should I use a complementary or alternative treatment for my chronic headaches?

The CAM options detailed above are pretty harmless. The bad news? There are many other approaches out there that can hurt you if not used properly. These include dietary supplements, which are not regulated by the FDA and can actually interact negatively with other medications you may be taking.

How to Use CAM Treatments Wisely

  • Talk to your doctor -- I know, I know. We say this all the time. But you should always talk to your doctor before you start any new treatment for chronic headache pain, even if it seems harmless. Your doctor knows your condition, and can alert you to any potential complications.

  • Start slowly -- Don’t jump into an advanced power yoga class because you heard yoga can help chronic headaches. Do a little research, and find a beginner’s class taught by someone who is licensed and has a good reputation.

  • Try one thing at a time -- If you try three different treatments all at once, how will you know which one is helping? You won’t. Plus, CAM treatments can be expensive. Most are not covered by traditional insurance plans. So before you shell out hundreds of dollars on every type of CAM, pick the one you are most interested in and start there.

  • Keep a journal -- Documenting how you feel as you start a new treatment can help you be more objective about how that treatment is working. Keep tabs on your headache pain throughout the day and look for patterns of relief.

  • Re-assess frequently -- Different things work for different people. Like medications, some CAM options may eventually just stop working for you. If your headache pain is getting worse, or your treatment is no longer as effective, it may be time to make a change.


Crawford CC, Huynh MT, Kepple A, and Jonas WB. Systematic Assessment of the Quality of Research Studies of Conventional and Alternative Treatment(s) of Primary Headache. Pain Physician. 2009 Mar-Apr;12(2):461-70

Rossi P, Di Lorenzo G, Faroni J, Malpezzi MG, Cesarino F, and Nappi G. Use of Complementary and Alternative Medicine by Patients with Chronic Tension-type Headache: Results of a Headache Clinic Survey. Headache. 2006 Apr;46(4):622-31

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