When a headache hits, the discomfort can be a real pain in the neck—not to mention the pounding pressure it imparts on your skull. For many people, medication is often the first line of defense, but did you know there are other ways to tame your pain? If you have persistent headaches, see your doctor for treatment, but in the meantime, here are some unexpected ways to ease your aches.
It may be best known for smoothing out wrinkles, but this wonder toxin also works magic on headache pain. “Botox relaxes the muscles that are contracted thanks to your headache,” says Traci Purath, MD, medical director of Comprehensive Headache Care at Wheaton Franciscan Medical Group in Franklin, Wisconsin. “It blocks sensory nerves that relay pain to the brain and eases tension in the forehead and the back of the neck,” she says. About eight injections, which feel like tiny pinpricks, are administered in the areas where the pain occurs. The effects start to kick in about eight to 10 days later. Treatments are recommended no more than every three months.
A little alternative assistance can be the trick to treat your aching head. “Acupuncture works the mind-body connection to help patients be in tune with their pain,” says Dr. Purath. Needles are placed on specific pain sensory areas on the neck, forehead and cheeks to redirect the pain. “The body learns to readjust its level of pain and desensitize the pathways over time,” she adds. The needles are so tiny you can barely feel them. In fact, some patients report feeling an overall sense of relaxation, says Dr. Purath. Treatment may be needed for several months, but the benefits can last up to a year.
If you experience headaches regularly and also need an incentive to trim that tush, exercise can help. “When you get moving, you improve your stamina, reduce stress and sleep more soundly,” says Jan Brandes, MD, assistant clinical professor of neurology at Vanderbilt University. “The more rigorous the exercise—jogging, fast walking, swimming—the more you’ll reduce pain associated with tension headaches,” she adds. However, if you are experiencing a migraine, regular exercise can actually make it worse, so be sure to take it easy!
Here’s another reason to get your eight glasses of H2O each and every day: Dehydration is one of the biggest causes of headaches. “When the body isn’t getting enough water, it begins to preserve the fluid it’s already storing and looks for ways to signal that it’s out of whack (i.e., by way of headaches or migraines),” says Dr. Purath. The good news is, drinking up can immediately cure the discomfort. To keep your body in balance, drink eight to 10 8-ounce glasses of water a day. But don’t overdo it; overloading on liquids can diminish your electrolytes and sodium levels.
You’re finally home from a long day at the office; your head is pounding, and you suddenly realize why: It’s been hours since you’ve last eaten! When you go too long without food, your blood sugar levels plummet, causing a hypoglycemic headache, says Dr. Purath. It’s the body’s way of saying, “Feed me, I’m hungry!” Grabbing a good-for-you munchie like an apple will get rid of your ache immediately and help bring your blood sugar levels back to normal. Resist the temptation to grab a candy bar for a sugar fix; it’ll spike your blood sugar and you’ll end up crashing later on, says Dr. Purath. Here’s a bit of food for thought: Though healthy, bananas have actually been known to trigger headaches!
Besides waking you up from a sleep-induced stupor, that morning cup of joe may have an unexpected benefit: Limited amounts of caffeine can help control headache pain, says Dr. Brandes. Plus, caffeine can help the body better absorb migraine medication through the stomach lining. And it can also curb pain at the onset of a headache by constricting blood vessels. For some people, though, caffeine causes headaches, so consume with caution.
These days, getting that elusive eight hours of shut-eye seems harder than ever, but if you suffer from headaches, too little (or even too much) sleep can cause one. Your body needs at least seven hours of uninterrupted sleep to refresh and replenish itself in order for the headache to disappear, says Dr. Purath. Try to stick to a regular schedule of going to bed and getting up at the same time each day. Over- or under-sleeping, by even just an hour or two, can trigger a migraine.
Your fourth-grade self had the right idea by keeping track of all your crushes. Take a page out of her book by getting a diary to record your daily food and beverage intake. You’ll be able to pinpoint any triggers that may be causing your headaches. For example, if you notice that you only seem to get headaches around barbecues, the culprit could be hot dogs. “For some people, the nitrates in hot dogs can cause headaches,” says Dr. Brandes. You can also identify what’s not causing your headache. You may be blaming chocolate for your migraines, but in the initial stages of a migraine, some people experience food cravings. So, if you’re hankering for a hunk of chocolate, it’s the migraine, not the chocolate that’s to blame.
It may sound (and look) like something out of a sci-fi flick, but for some sufferers, managing headache pain is all about mind over matter. Like classical conditioning (think Pavlov’s dog), biofeedback involves monitoring your body’s response to pain and being able to control the sensation so that it’s manageable, says Dr. Purath. Electrodes are connected to your forehead, forearm and neck—the areas that tense up the most during a headache—and hooked up to a monitor, so you can see the muscles actually tightening. Over time, your brain will remember seeing your muscles contract and will learn to relax them. About six to eight sessions are needed for results.