Alternative treatment of headaches

Headaches are a very common issue that likely everyone has experienced at one point or another. What was typically considered standard procedure – popping a painkiller , we now know is not necessarily the best approach to deal with headaches due to issues surrounding dependence, as well as negative repercussions on the stomach and liver with overuse.

So how can we manage our pain without turning to pills?
The trick is identifying the type of headache you are experiencing and addressing the root cause.

The 3 main categories of headaches are
1.     Vascular
2.     Inflammatory
3.     Musculoskeletal


The most common vascular headache that is experienced is a migraine. Note that this term is often used to describe a particularly severe headache, however that is incorrect. Migraines are a particular type of headache believed to be caused by rapid constriction and dilation of blood vessels in the head. The mechanism is not fully understood, however it is thought to have a neurological component as well. Migraines range in severity, and can be proceeded by an aura (visual disturbances), as well as accompanied by nausea and sensitivity to light and sound.
Migraines typically have triggers that are associated with them.

Some common triggers include:

·      Tannic foods (tea, dark chocolate, red wine,cheese etc)
·      Citrus fruit
·      MSG
·      Stress
·      Sleep deprivation
·      Specific scents

Common treatment: Avoidance of triggers, as well as prescription medication taken as a preventative or abortive measure.

Alternative treatment:
·      Stress management through alternative therapies such as massage, meditation, and acupuncture has been shown to be effective to reduce migraine frequency and may  cut down on the amount of medication necessary for management
·      Peppermint oil has also been shown to be effective in stress reduction and as a distractant/ pain modulator.


The most common inflammatory type of headache is a sinus headache.

The paranasal sinuses are hollow cavities within the skull, lined by tissue called mucosa. This tissue can become inflamed or irritated if the sinuses become full of mucus. This inflammation and/or pressure from the filled sinuses can cause a headache. Pain usually presents in the forehead, ocular, upper teeth region(s). In order to relieve this headache, you need to address the sinus issue.

Common treatment for sinus inflammation and lack of drainage is to take an over the counter decongestant. Antibiotics might be necessary if a bacterial infection is present.

Alternative treatment options:
·      eucalyptus oil in hot water,creating an antimicrobial steam
·      Using a neti pot or other irrigation system
·      Alternating hot and cold towels over the face
·      Acupressure over the sinus regions (the colored areas indicated above) can help facilitate drainage and offer temporary relief from the pressure


This category encompasses the most common types of headaches that result from either joint dysfunction in the neck (cervicogenic headache), or muscular issues (tension headache).
These headaches will often present in the temple region or at the base of the skull and will be accompanied by neck and/or shoulder pain, stiffness and restricted movement.

The good news about this type of headache is that there is a lot that we as practitioners can do about it.
Pain causing tissue impairments

·      Trigger points aka “knots”
·      Increased muscle tension
·      Fascial restrictions
·      Compression of nerves/blood vessels
·      Compression of the joints in the neck


·      Poor posture (seated, slouched, head forward)
·      Carrying a heavy bag
·      Poor shoulder mobility
·      Poor breathing patterns
·      Trauma (whiplash, motor vehicle accident)
·      Poor eyesight
·      Grinding or clenching the teeth
·      Physical or emotional stress


The treatment approach will be dictated by the underlying cause of the musculoskeletal headache. The combination of soft tissue massage, joint mobilization and an exercise/stretch program is typically indicated.
Chiropractic, Physiotherapy, Massage and Acupuncture are all effective and complementary therapies that can treat musculoskeletal headaches.

Self care
·      Heat can help reduce muscle and fascial tightness
·      Meditation, progressive relaxation and diaphragmatic breathing can help to manage stress
·      Peppermint oil can help reduce stress and act as a pain modulator
·      Practicing postural awareness, limiting screen time and time spent seated

**This is by no means an exhaustive list of headache types, only a select few of the most common.

Kisner, Carolyn., and Lynn Allen Colby. Therapeutic Exercise: Foundations and Techniques. 5th ed. Philadelphia: F.A. Davis, 2007.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.