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Alternative Headache Treatments

8 Safe and Effective Ways to Treat Your Headaches


Updated January 26, 2009

Many traditional treatments for headaches are common and well-known, and finding alternative headache treatments will give you so many more options for treating your pain. At least eight separate alternative treatments have been studied, documented and considered to be not only safe, but effective. The National Headache Foundation compiled their research and produced this list. For a more detailed discussion, including other potentially effective treatments, you can read this National Guideline Clearinghouse summary.

1. Feverfew

Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) is a common medicinal herb. It has been used for centuries to treat conditions, such as fever, arthritis and digestive problems. Feverfew interacts with serotonin and prostaglandin pathways, two substances in the body thought to contribute to blood vessel spasm and subsequent headaches. Multiple double-blind trials and safety studies have shown Feverfew to be an effective and safe treatment for headaches. One caution with feverfew is that it increases bleeding times (blood takes longer to clot) and may interact with warfarin (Coumadin).

2. Butterbur Root Extract

Butterbur root extract (Petasites hybridus) is another common medicinal herb used historically to treat pain, fever and spasms. It is mainly used today to treat asthma and headache. It has been shown through research trials to prevent migraine as well. It is an anti-inflammatory substance, inhibiting the COX enzymes as well as interacting with calcium channels. COX enzymes are involved in inflammatory processes in the body. Since butterbur contains chemicals toxic to the liver, it has to be prepared through a patented process. This safe herbal extract is marketed under the name Petadolex.

3. Riboflavin

Riboflavin (Vitamin B2) has been studied using a daily dose of 400 mg. It is typically split into smaller doses taken multiple times daily. Your healthcare practitioner can help you determine the best way for you to use it. Riboflavin is considered safe to use in pregnancy and is a common alternative treatment for headaches during pregnancy. One drawback is that Riboflavin can take several months to produce the maximal effect.

4. Magnesium

Magnesium is a mineral necessary to our diet. It can also be used to treat and prevent headaches. Intravenous (IV) magnesium seems to be quite effective in treating an acute headache. Magnesium can also be taken orally in doses of 400 mg to 600 mg per day. One potential drawback in using magnesium orally is that one study found patients had an increased chance of developing diarrhea.

5. Acupuncture

Acupuncture is an ancient form of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) that is gaining popularity in the Western medical community. The National Headache Foundation used 14 separate clinical trials discussing acupuncture in the treatment of headaches. While no single study definitively shows acupuncture to be effective, some patients are experiencing relief from their headaches through its use. Acupuncture is considered a safe treatment for headache.

6. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a counseling technique effective in treating a variety of mood disorders, including anxiety and depression. It involves identifying negative thoughts and attitudes that may contribute to a headache, developing an action plan to deal with the headache and encouraging patients to come up with a long-term treatment solution. CBT has been used with other behavioral techniques, but is quite effective on its own.

7. Biofeedback

Biofeedback is a technique that uses external monitoring to help a patient discover how his body responds physiologically to certain situations or stimuli. The patient can then learn, with the help of an experienced practitioner, to alter his own body's response to these outside forces, producing an effective coping strategy. Biofeedback can effectively be combined with other prescription or nonprescription treatments for headaches.

8. Relaxation Training

Relaxation training involves progressive muscle relaxation, breathing exercises and/or guided imagery. Various studies suggest that relaxation training can be as effective as biofeedback for treating headaches. It can also be combined with other forms of headache treatment to provide a more effective and lasting result.


Mauskop A, Graff-Radford S. Special treatment situations: alternative headache treatments. In: Standards of care for headache diagnosis and treatment. Chicago (IL): National Headache Foundation; 2004. p. 115-22.

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