Headache Relief: Best-Ever Home Remedies

How to prevent and treat headaches without drugs.

ByABC News
March 4, 2011, 4:21 PM

March 5, 2011— -- More than 45 million Americans not only get headaches, but they also get them time and time again. Some people are born with biology that makes them headache prone. Most of these are tension headaches, which account for 90% of all headaches. The pain is typically generalized all over the head, and you may feel a dull ache or a sense of tightness.

But an estimated 28 million people experience migraine headaches, which are even worse. Migraine is a complex disease that causes severe and often disabling pain, usually located on one side of the head, often accompanied by nausea, light and noise sensitivity, and other symptoms. Lots of things can set off a migraine attack, including changing hormone levels, poor eating or sleeping habits, dehydration, stress, weather or altitude changes, or more.

Headaches aren't fun for anyone and are especially crippling for migraine sufferers. OTC medications such as aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, or acetaminophen can help, but you have to be careful not to overuse them, which can lead to a rebound effect that makes symptoms worse. Here are the best home remedies to prevent headaches and help them get better faster.

Avoid MSG

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) may bring out all those subtle and spicy flavors in wonton soup, but if you're one of the many people who are sensitive to this flavor enhancer, it might also bring on a whopping headache. Like other headache triggers, MSG launches its attack by dilating blood vessels and exciting nerves in the brain. If you get headaches and other symptoms from MSG, make sure it's left out when you order Chinese food. Many packaged products are also loaded with it, so read labels carefully for additives with names such as hydrolyzed protein, glutamate, and caseinate, all MSG in disguise.

Expert: The Editors of Prevention


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Skip Amines and Nitrates

A hot fudge sundae may sound heavenly, but it could also be a migraine sufferer's nightmare. Chocolate, which contains an amine compound called phenylethylamine, can cause blood vessels to constrict, then dilate, which may trigger a headache. The worst of the amines may be tyramine, an amino acid found in aged cheese, pickled herring, and liver. Other amine-containing foods include homemade yeast breads, lima beans, and snow peas. Nitrates, compounds commonly found in processed meat products such as hot dogs, bacon, and salami, also dilate blood vessels and may lead to head pain.

Expert: The Editors of Prevention

Fish Oil

A small study at the University of Cincinnati found that taking fish-oil capsules reduced the frequency and severity of migraines, compared with taking a placebo. While preliminary, these findings add to the mounting evidence of benefits from the omega-3 fatty acids in fish. You could also eat the equivalent of 2 ounces of fatty fish daily to reap similar headache-reducing benefits as those in the study.

Expert: The Editors of Prevention

Warm Footbaths

This soothing, therapeutic bath of hot water and a few teaspoons of mustard powder (used in cooking; available at grocery stores) may help you herd away a headache. The hot water causes your body to redistribute blood from one concentrated area—your throbbing head—and get it flowing all over. At the same time, mustard powder's essential oils stimulate the skin, diverting your attention from the headache.

Expert: Gannady Raskin, MD, ND, dean of the School of Naturopathic Medicine at Bastyr University


This fragrant herb inhibits a substance called thromboxane A2, which prevents the release of substances that make blood vessels dilate. In other words, it can help keep blood flowing on an even keel, which is essential in migraine headache prevention. Grate fresh ginger into juice, nosh on Japanese pickled ginger, use fresh or powdered ginger when you cook, or nibble on a piece or two of crystallized ginger candy daily.

Expert: The Editors of Prevention


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When you're stressed or anxious, you subconsciously clench your jaw and teeth; this strains the muscle that connects your jaw to your temples and can trigger a tension headache. A solution: Put a pencil between your teeth but don't bite. You automatically relax your jaw muscle to do this, which can prevent the pain.

Expert: Fred Sheftell, MD, director and founder of the New England Center for Headache in Stamford, CT

Stand Up Straight

Poor posture creates muscle tension that puts pressure on the nerves that cause headaches. For people who work at computers, a posture problem called head forward posture can develop. Every inch that your head moves forward feels like an extra 10 pounds to the muscles in your upper back and neck, keeping them in constant contraction. Try this technique to correct head forward posture: Align your eyes on top of your shoulders. When you do this you will automatically straighten up.

Expert: Seymour Diamond, MD, director and founder of the Diamond Headache Clinic and the inpatient headache unit at St. Joseph Hospital in Chicago

Watch Caffeine Intake

If you drink too much caffeine on a daily basis—three or more cups of coffee or large amounts of soda—your caffeine intake can cause or worsen your headaches. Moreover, suddenly stopping your caffeine will surely bring on a headache. But if you're not a regular caffeine consumer, one cup can go a long way toward providing headache relief by constricting the dilated blood vessels around your temples. It also increases the efficacy of pain medications, which is why it is found in most headache medicines.

Expert: Alan Rapoport, MD, cofounder and codirector of the New England Center for Headache in Stamford, CT


Try relaxing magnesium (200 to 400 mg) to reduce the muscle tension and spasms that can cause your noggin to throb. But not any type will do. Make sure the supplement contains at least 200 mg of active elemental magnesium. Because magnesium is more preventive than curative, the treatment works best on, say, premenstrual headaches because you can predict when they're coming and take a dose a day in advance. Those with kidney problems should consult a health care practitioner before taking magnesium.

Expert: Ronald Hoffman, MD, medical director of the Hoffman Center in New York and author of Alternative Cures That Really Work


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