People who suffer from chronic headaches have seen some exciting therapeutic advances over the past few years, but, for many, the excitement is short-lived. Even the newest medications don’t help everyone, and side effects can range from uncomfortable to intolerable.
Lawrence Taw, MD, has met and treated hundreds of these patients with headaches in his role as director of the UCLA Center for East-West Medicine, where he recommends a more holistic approach. Here, he explains how incorporating natural medicine can make a world of difference for some patients.
Bottom Line Health: How do natural healing approaches treat headache pain?
Dr. Taw: Headaches are often triggered or worsened by things like skipping meals, losing sleep, or even changing altitude. The body likes a healthy routine, and it perceives disruptions to our daily rhythms as stress on the system.
In response to this perceived stress, the body protects itself by tightening up. Most patients struggling with headaches have coexisting tension in their neck and shoulder muscles, but there’s tension below the surface, too. Constriction of blood vessels and changes to blood flow may also contribute to headache pain.
BLH: How can people ease that tension without medications?
Dr. Taw: One way to reduce this tension is to do a mind-body exercise called tai chi, which combines continuous movement with gentle stretching and deep breathing—the body’s way of turning off the stress response. While scientists don’t know the exact mechanisms at play, we suspect that tai chi is effective because it relaxes the body and muscles.
In a study conducted at the UCLA Center for East-West Medicine, we learned that patients who participated in a 15-week-long tai chi program had less headache pain as well as more energy and better emotional well-being. Because tai chi is so gentle, it’s an excellent option for people of any age or ability. You can start with a five-minute session and work your way up to about 30 minutes.
You can find a tai chi class near you by visiting the Tai Chi Foundation at https://www.taichifoundation.org to use their class directory. You can also purchase DVDs or find free videos on the Internet so you can practice in your own home.
BLH: What is the role of acupuncture in managing headaches?
Dr. Taw: In our clinic, acupuncture consistently shows positive results. It reduces tension, promotes local circulation, and causes the body to release its own endorphins, which are natural painkillers. Researchers using functional MRI studies have demonstrated that acupuncture stimulation of a commonly needled point on the hand has specific effects on the limbic system, the stress and emotional regulatory center of the brain.
A review of 22 clinical trials that was published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews found that acupuncture may be as effective as migraine preventive medications. Headache frequency decreased by half in up to 59 percent of the 5,000 people who were in the study, and, for some people, the effects lasted for more than six months.
BLH: What do you suggest for people who don’t have acess to an acupuncturist or who are not comfortable with the needles used in the practice?
Dr. Taw: At the UCLA Center for East-West Medicine, we teach patients how to apply acupressure to specific points, which can produce similar effects to acupuncture. For example:
- Large intestine 4. Applying pressure to this point, which lies on the hand between the thumb and index finger may relieve stress, neck tension, and headaches.
- Gallbladder 20. Also, when resting your head between both hands with fingers interlaced, you can use both thumbs to apply pressure on the points where the neck muscles attach to the base of skull to help alleviate neck tension and headaches.
- Triple heater 3. Applying pressure between the knuckes of the pinky and ring finger may ease neck pain, shoulder pain, and tension headaches.
At the UCLA Center for East-West Medicine, we suggest that patients apply pressure to targeted points for 30 to 60 seconds twice per day.
BLH: What supplements can help people with headaches?
Dr. Taw: There are several promising over-the-counter supplements:
Magnesium is a well-studied supplement that relaxes muscles and, as a result, has a wide range of therapeutic applications. It eases constipation, improves asthma symptoms, may help you sleep better, and shows promise in treating tension headaches.
A common starting dose is 200 to 400 milligrams (mg). Magnesium oxide is difficult to absorb, so look for magnesium glycinate or citrate.
If you get loose stools (a common side effect and the reason it’s often used as a treatment for constipation), lower your dose. If you have kidney disease, talk to your doctor before taking magnesium.
Feverfew, some studies suggest, may help prevent migraine and other types of headaches, reduce their frequency, and lessen related symptoms such as pain, light sensitivity, nausea, and vomiting.
The recommended dosage is 50 to 150 mg daily. Don’t take feverfew if you are sensitive to ragweed, as it can cause an allergic reaction.
Riboflavin (vitamin B2), has been shown to reduce both headache frequency and the need for pain-
The recommended dosage is 400 mg daily. Don’t take riboflavin before bed, as it can give you a boost of energy that may interfere with sleep.
Coenzyme Q10 can reduce the severity, frequency, and duration of migraine headaches.
The recommended dosage is
100 mg three times daily. It is best to take this during the day, as it may help fatigue.
(Editor’s note: See page 4 for a detailed looked at CoQ10.)
Essential oils. Menthol, eucalyptus, rosemary, and lavender oils have a calming effect that may ease tension and headaches. But be careful because, for some people, strong smells can trigger a headache.