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Headache? What Would Eve Have Done?

Headaches have been with us since Eve.  Between  family politics and misunderstandings with her partner – not to speak of sibling rivalry and all that gardening! – we can be pretty certain she and the rest of her brood had their share of headaches and  the discomfort they bring.  Eden’s first settlers couldn’t get to a doctor for a prescription, either, but we can also be sure they still found ingenious and effective ways to ease their aches and pains.  And while modern medicine is of incalculable value, there is no need to discard all the traditional healing arts just because we have CT scans and antibiotics.  Indeed, there many complementary and alternative approaches that really help.

We’ve already looked at massage, spinal manipulation and dietary supplements to treat headaches.  Now, let’s see what the science says about mind and body approaches.

Relaxation training:

  • One review article found that relaxation training significantly reduced headache activity when compared to other forms of therapy.
  • Relaxation techniques are generally considered safe for healthy people.
  • As far as side effects are concerned, there are rare reports that specific relaxation techniques might worsen or even cause symptoms in people with epilepsy or certain mental illnesses, or a history of trauma or abuse.  And people with heart disease should check with their doctors before embarking on a course of treatment involving progressive muscle relaxation.

Biofeedback:

  • A review article reported that using biofeedback together with a combination of antidepressant and high blood pressure medication was more effective in treating tension headaches than medication alone.
  • Results from one study indicated that biofeedback provided no additional benefit compared with relaxation therapy in reducing the frequency and severity of headaches.
  • Biofeedback is generally found to be safe, even while it may not be appropriate for some individuals.

Tai chi:

  • The results of a small clinical trial indicated that a 15-week program of tai chi effectively reduced the impact of tension headaches when compared with a wait-list control group.
  • Tai chi is, essentially, a safe practice.  Some heath care professionals, however, advise their patients to either modify or avoid certain postures because of acute back pain, bone fractures, sprains, knee problems or osteoporosis.
  • Research indicates that cognitive-behavioral therapy may provide additional relief when combined with medication used to help prevent migraines.

Acupuncture:

  • Researchers found, after reviewing two large trials in people with tension headaches, that adding acupuncture to the use of pain relievers was more effective in relieving headache symptoms than using pain medication alone.
  • In a review that analyzed results from three small and two large trials comparing true acupuncture with sham acupuncture (where needles are either inserted at incorrect points or did not penetrate the skin), it was found that true acupuncture did have a better effect for treating tension headaches.
  • In another review article, it was determined that results indicated that adding acupuncture to both acute treatment and routine care may be beneficial in reducing the intensity and frequency of migraines.
  • Acupuncture is considered to be safe when performed by qualified, licensed practitioners, using sterile needles.
  • Few complications or side effects have been reported.
  • Serious adverse events are extremely rare, but include infections and punctured organs.

NCCAM Research

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine-supported research on headaches includes the following:

  • Craniosacral therapy for preventing migraines and to determine if this treatment approach will work well with conventional care.
  • Spinal manipulation for headache and neck pain relief, and to determine how many treatments are needed to sustain its benefits.
  • To determine if acupuncture is more effective than a sham procedure, or the usual care, in reducing the severity and frequency of chronic daily headaches.
  • Evaluating the efficacy of therapeutic massage in relieving tension headaches.
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