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11 Most Effective Drug-Free Headache Remedies

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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  • white businesswoman working in office, being stressed out or sick
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    Water
    senior man drinking from glass of water

    Dehydration can quickly cause a headache and if you’re prone to getting headaches, it can make them worse. Drinking a few glasses of water at the onset of a headache may curb the pain by delivering more oxygen to the brain. You can also try eating fruits and vegetables with a high water content, such as cucumbers, watermelon, and berries. Not only will you get more water in your system, but these foods provide micronutrients that could ease your headache.

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    Tai Chi
    SEnior men and women doing tai chi at sunrise in park

    Tai chi is a practice that originated in China and has become popular in the United States as a way to slow down and reduce stress. A small study reported that tai chi could be helpful in relieving tension headaches, because it can relax your body and mind. The practice takes you through a series of slow, meditative movements and deep breathing that you do with a group or alone. There are great videos available online to try it out.

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    Temperature Treatments
    woman-with-cold-towel-on-forehead

    Applying a warm or cold compress is an easy way to ease a headache. The preferred temperature is up to you; you may want to try different temps for different types of headaches. Some studies have shown that putting an ice pack on your head or neck helps reduce migraine pain by constricting blood vessels and reducing inflammation. A warm washcloth or heating pad might feel better for a tension headache because it helps relax tense muscles.

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    Butterbur Extract
    dried butterbur, Petasitidis folium, in wood scoop on wood table

    The American Academy of Neurology and the American Headache Society report that butterbur is an effective treatment for migraines and can help reduce the severity and frequency of attacks. How it works is still unclear, but scientists think the compounds in butterbur may have an anti-inflammatory effect. Look for butterbur extract, which is safe for prolonged use, though you may experience mild side effects like belching and digestive issues. Consuming raw butterbur isn’t advised, as it could cause liver damage.

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    Herbal Tea
    Pouring fresh mint tea into glass from glass teapot

    Drinking coffee or consuming caffeine for headaches is a common remedy, but a cup of herbal tea is also a great option. If you’re cutting back on caffeine, look for headache relief from herbal teas that contain peppermint, lavender and chamomile. These have a calming effect on your nervous system and the water in the tea will increase your hydration. Migraine sufferers should try ginger tea or simply mix a spoonful of ginger powder in a cup of warm water.

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    Magnesium
    Scattered raw almonds on counter top

    A magnesium deficiency may be linked to headaches, as people who are prone to getting migraines typically have lower levels of magnesium in their bodies than headache-free folks. If you plan to take magnesium supplements, be sure to talk with your doctor about the recommended dosage for migraine treatment. Magnesium-rich foods are also known to help headaches. Next time you feel pain coming on, reach for a handful of almonds, cashews, peanuts, or pumpkin seeds.

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    Relaxation Techniques
    African American man meditating and listening to music in bedroom

    Stress is a major cause of tension headaches and basic relaxation techniques can help ease pain, especially if you practice them as a preventive remedy. When a headache hits you, breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation may provide some relief. If you’re new to these techniques, you can find online videos that will guide you through the exercises. Try doing these when you don’t have a headache, so you’ll be ready to treat yourself when pain pops up.

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    Acupuncture
    Back of unseen African American woman getting acupuncture

    If you experience frequent headaches, you may want to start a preventive treatment routine like acupuncture to help ward off chronic headache pain. How does it work? Acupuncture practitioners insert thin, disposable needles into pressure points that stimulate your nerves to release pain-relieving hormones. This can provide relief on the spot if you have a headache or help you maintain a calm nervous system as preventive treatment. Find a practitioner on the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture website.

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    Rest
    Middle aged man asleep in bed near clock

    Some headaches, especially migraines, can cause light sensitivity and are only relieved by resting in a quiet, dark place. Lying down and closing your eyes can also help relax tense muscles that cause tension headaches. As a preventive tool, getting the right amount of rest and sleep at night is a great home remedy for headaches. Too much or too little sleep can cause a throbbing head, so aim for 6 to 8 hours a night to keep your noggin pain free.

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    Massage
    Woman receiving massage

    Massages aren’t just for spa days. They can help stop a tension headache in its tracks by relieving muscle tension and reducing stress. Ask your massage therapist to give special attention to tight muscles in the back of your head, neck and shoulders. Massage also helps improve blood flow, which can relieve throbbing vascular headaches like migraines. You may want to book monthly or biweekly massage sessions to help maintain muscle relaxation between treatments and prevent chronic headache pain.

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    Biofeedback
    Biofeedback patient being tested by doctor

    Biofeedback is a unique treatment that measures body functions and provides feedback, so you can better control triggers that cause headaches. This treatment is great for managing tension headaches. It helps you become aware when your muscles are becoming tense, so you can take steps to relax them before the pain starts. It’s best to learn biofeedback techniques from a professional until you get the hang of doing it on your own.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 20
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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  2. Headache remedies to help you feel better. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/headache-remedies-to-help-you-feel-better
  3. Headaches: Treatment depends on your diagnosis and symptoms. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/chronic-daily-headaches/in-depth/headaches/art-20047375
  4. Headaches. Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9639-headaches
  5. Headaches: In Depth. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/headaches-in-depth
  6. Tame Your Tension Headaches Naturally. Cleveland Clinic. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/tame-your-tension-headaches-naturally/
  7. Magnesium Rich Food. Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/15650-magnesium-rich-food