Headache and Migraine Treatments Overview

Medications, Complementary Therapies, and Lifestyle Habits

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Many treatments are available for headaches, as evidenced by the abundance of advertisements on radio and television, in magazines, and on the internet. What works well for one person may or may not work well for another, so it's a good thing there are so many choices.

Here is a basic overview of the variety of headache and migraine treatments available.

Medications for Headaches

The most commonly used medications for treating headaches are the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, like ibuprofen and Aleve (naproxen). The major problem with NSAIDs is that some people cannot take them, like those who are at risk for bleeding into their stomach. Ibuprofen and Aleve (naprosyn) should also be avoided in those with a history of heart or kidney disease. Tylenol (acetaminophen) is another over-the-counter option that is not an NSAID. But it may not be as effective for some people.

Besides NSAIDs, migraines can be treated with a number of other medications like:

While many common medications are used at the onset of a headache to relieve symptoms, there are also medications used regularly to reduce the frequency or intensity of headaches. The calcium-channel blocker verapamil, beta-blocker propranolol, antidepressant Elavil (amitriptyline), and anti-seizure medication topiramate (Topamax) are three examples of migraine preventive medications.

Patients and physicians can together determine which of these medications makes the most sense based on symptoms, side effects, and other medical conditions.

Complementary and Alternative Therapies for Headaches

Depending on the type of headache and the specific symptoms, complementary and alternative treatments are gaining popularity in dealing with pain.

  • Acupuncture involves the insertion of tiny needles into specific points to promote energy flow and pain relief.
  • Biofeedback is a process where patients learn to interpret their body’s signals and then promote a natural response.
  • Chiropractic and osteopathic manipulative treatments involve adjustments made to the spine and musculoskeletal system to correct imbalances.
  • Hypnosis and visual imagery are also being used to treat various types of headaches.
  • Homeopathy looks to assess specific symptoms and provide remedies that address each symptom individually or as a group.

Physical Therapy

If your headaches are being caused by muscle tension, physical therapy may be prescribed to address specific muscular issues. Treatment protocols vary, but expect regular treatments for a few weeks at a time, with adjustments made depending upon your improvement.

Lifestyle Habits for Headache and Migraine Therapy

Since stress in our daily lives may trigger headaches, learning to manage stress in a healthy way can benefit your headaches and migraines.

Exercise is one way to reduce stress. Exercise also causes endorphin release, and endorphins are your body’s natural painkillers.

Finding food and drinks that trigger headaches, and then learning to avoid or cope with those, may also reduce the number of headaches you experience.

Talk with Your Doctor

Whatever your ultimate treatment may be, be sure to involve your healthcare professional throughout the entire process. He can help choose the most effective treatment strategies while minimizing complications and side effects.

Edited by Dr. Colleen Doherty, MD December 24th, 2015.

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Article Sources
  • “Complementary Therapies.” National Pain Foundation website. 
  • Gray, R.N., et al. "Drug Treatments for the Prevention of Migraine Headache. Technical Review 2.3." Duke Univ., Durham, NC. Center for Clinical Health Policy Research. February 1999.
  • Schachtel BP, Furey SA, Thoden WR. Nonprescription ibuprofen and acetaminophen in the treatment of tension-type headache. J Clin Pharmacol. 1996 Dec;36(12):1120-5.