Home Remedies for Headaches that Actually Work

No one’s immune to the occasional headache, but that doesn’t mean you’re powerless in preventing them. Here’s how to stop a headache before it starts, and some home remedies for headaches that have already taken hold.

Woman with headachePhoto: Shutterstock

So, you’ve got a headache…

Of course, you can pop an aspirin or two and you’ll usually get headache relief (unless you reach for aspirin too often, in which case, you can expect a rebound headache when it wears off). But it’s also worth trying these other home remedies for headaches because they’re quite effective, especially when combined with your headache medicine.

Do this as soon as you get a headache:

To put an end to the classic tension headache, take these steps.

  1. Take Aleve (225 milligrams) or a product combining acetaminophen, aspirin, and caffeine, such as Excedrin. Take one Aleve or two Excedrin every four hours for up to two days. Wash it down with a caffeinated beverage like tea, coffee, or cola.
  2. Mix 1 drop peppermint oil in 9 drops massage oil and massage it into your temples, hairline, and along the base of your skull. Wash your hands thoroughly afterward.
  3. Rub the fleshy area between your thumb and index finger very firmly and rhythmically while sitting quietly with your eyes closed and breathing deeply for 5 to 10 minutes. As you breathe out, ease up on the pressure on your hand and imagine all the tension and pain in your head draining out as your breath relaxes.
  4. If you still have a headache, put an ice pack on your forehead and the back of your head for 15 minutes while lying in a quiet place and breathing in and out slowly and deeply.
  5. If neck tension is contributing to your headache, do these neck stretches. Sit up straight in an armless chair. Grab the edge of the chair with your right hand and lean your neck over to the left, trying to place your left ear onto your left shoulder. Hold for 10 seconds, then repeat on the other side. Moving your hand back on the chair seat stretches muscles in the back of the neck; moving it forward stretches muscles in the front.
  6. For a migraine we recommend magnesium. It is also effective for tension and cluster headaches. Take 300 to 500 milligrams at the first sign of a headache. One caution: It may lead to some temporary diarrhea.
  7. Finally, eat a small snack that combines carbohydrates and protein, like cheese and crackers, or a container of yogurt, or a piece of fruit and a slice of deli meat.

Why these home remedies for headaches actually work:

Unless you’re suffering from a rebound headache caused by overuse of pain relievers, aspirin and other NSAIDs still provide the fastest, best relief. They work by blocking production of inflammatory chemicals that cause the swelling of blood vessels in the head. Taking them with caffeine helps them work better because caffeine constricts blood vessels. Don’t overdo the caffeine, though-more than 3 to 5 cups of coffee a day (less if you’re sensitive to the stimulant) can backfire, leading to headaches as the caffeine “hit” wears off.

The menthol in peppermint oil is a topical pain reliever that also relaxes muscles; the scent also helps with nausea that sometimes accompanies bad headaches. These effects are enhanced by the gentle massaging motion you use as you apply the oil. Keep the oil away from your eyes, and don’t use it on very small children or if you have asthma. You can also find peppermint essential oil in rub-on stick form.

Pressing the web of your hand as described above is an effective acupressure technique for tension headaches.

The ice decreases the inflammation of throbbing blood vessels, and the deep breathing eases muscle tension, as do the stretches.

Finally, we want you to eat something, because low blood sugar can cause a headache. A snack that contains some protein is best because it won’t cause a blood sugar crash later, unlike a candy bar.

How to prevent a headache in the first place:

Book appointments for acupuncture. Numerous studies attest to acupuncture’s benefits in treating and preventing chronic headaches. For instance, in one well-designed study, German researchers divided 270 tension headache patients into three groups, giving one group acupuncture, one group sham acupuncture (using needles on sites that are not true acupuncture points), and one group no treatment over eight weeks. Those who received the real acupuncture and sham acupuncture saw their headache rates drop by almost half, while the control group saw little change. Plus, those who received the real acupuncture treatment found they had fewer headaches for months after the treatment ended. Start with a series of six to eight treatments once or twice a week, depending on the severity of your symptoms.

Have your feet rubbed. Reflexology—which involves massaging or pressing specific points on the feet—improved headaches in 81 per cent of 220 chronic headache patients who participated in a clinical trial testing it. However, there was no control group in this study, so we can’t be sure how much of the benefit was due to the placebo effect. If it gets rid of your headache, though, does it matter?

See a chiropractor. One review of eight clinical trials found that spinal manipulation improved chronic tension and migraine headaches as well as, or better than, aspirin or placebo. Other studies find chiropractic combined with exercise is even more effective. However, if you have osteoarthritis of the neck, rheumatoid arthritis, cerebral vascular disease, or heart disease, skip the chiropractic, since it could increase your risk of stroke.

Give biofeedback a try. There’s good evidence that biofeedback can help relieve and prevent chronic tension headaches. In one study, young headache sufferers who learned biofeedback had fewer headaches in the 6 to 12 months after their treatment than those in a control group. You’ll need to see a biofeedback professional for training; afterward you can practice the techniques yourself without the sensors that give the “feedback.”

Try 5-HTP. Studies find that taking 150 milligrams twice a day of this amino acid (5-hydroxytryptophan) for two weeks can reduce the intensity of chronic tension headaches, as well as the use of pain relievers, probably by raising levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps nerves communicate and plays a role in pain perception. Try it if your headaches are related to overuse of pain relievers and you’re trying to wean yourself off daily use. Don’t use it for more than three or four weeks without your doctor’s okay.

Decline that drink. Alcohol is a known headache trigger. Just half an hour after that first sip of wine, you could wind up with a throbbing noggin.

Cut out any food triggers. Some foods can provoke headaches, including citrus fruits, chocolate, dairy, and foods that contain tyramine, like aged cheese and cured meats. So can some food additives, including sodium chloride, sodium nitrate, monosodium glutamate, and the sweetener aspartame.

Improve your posture. If you sit in front of a computer all day, eye and neck strain can lead to headaches. Have an ergonomics expert evaluate your workstation. Hint: Your legs and arms should be bent at right angles, and your head shouldn’t tilt up or down.

Talk with your doctor about antidepressants. Research shows that regular use of tricyclic antidepressants such as Elavil (amitriptyline) or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as Prozac (fluoxetine) can prevent chronic headaches, whether migraine or other types. They probably work by affecting the release of certain brain chemicals that lead to headaches, and studies suggest they work twice as well when combined with stress-reducing therapies like biofeedback.

Swallow fish oil supplements. Because inflammation contributes to headaches and fish oil counters inflammation, try taking 3 grams fish oil a day to relieve frequent headaches. It’s good for your heart and the rest of your body too.

Check out these 10 Proven Migraine Remedies (Plus One That Doesn’t Work)!