Forget Ibuprofen! Put an end to painful migraines and headaches by making small lifestyle changes more powerful than a pill
Headache relief is one of the top five reasons people seek help from their doctors—in fact, a full 25 percent of those seeking treatment report that their headaches are so debilitating they actually affect their quality of life, according to a new meta-study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine. But there's no miracle pill to cure them; even worse, there are so many different types (cluster, tension, migraine—just to name a few) and causes that there likely never will be a universal cure.
Luckily, there are proven ways to get real relief. And while your instinct might be to go to head straight for your doctor's office for a maximum strength pain pill, hold up a second: "I think there's a subconscious perception that more is better, and that fancier, more expensive tests are better and that equals better care," explained John Mafi, M.D., lead author of the meta-study. Mafi's team found that people who tried things like more exercise, a healthier diet, and meditation often saw immediate results with no negative side effects. So before you ask for a barrage of tests or a prescription, try one of these 12 research-backed lifestyle changes for immediate pain relief. (Read up on 8 Natural Remedies for Coughs, Headaches, and More too.)
The "Not tonight, honey, I have a headache" excuse is real—but pushing past the pain and experiencing that pleasure may actually help, says research out of Germany. A 2013 study of over 1,000 headache sufferers found that nearly two-thirds of migraine victims and half of people with cluster headaches experienced partial or full headache relief after having sex. (It's one of 5 Surprising Reasons to Have More Sex Tonight.) The cure, according to the docs, is in the endorphins released during orgasm—they override the pain.
That minty fresh breath may come with a pounding head. According to a 2013 study from Tel Aviv, two-thirds of headache sufferers who chewed gum daily and were then asked to quit saw complete cessation of their pain. Even more compelling, when they started chewing again, all reported that the headaches returned. All that chewing is putting stress on your jaw, according to Nathan Watemberg, M.D., the lead author of the study. "Every doctor knows that overuse of the TMJ will cause headaches," he reported in the study, published in Pediatric Neurology. "I believe this is what's happening when [people] chew gum excessively."
Exercise may be the best cure for tension headaches (the most common kind of pounding), according to a study from Sweden. Women who reported chronic headaches were taught either an exercise program, relaxation techniques, or simply told how to manage stress in their lives. After 12 weeks, the exercisers saw the biggest reduction in their pain and, even better, reported greater life satisfaction overall. The researchers think it's the combination of stress relief and feel-good endorphins. And you don't have to be a gym rat—the study found that walking or lifting weights two or three times a week was enough to nix the pain.
Thinking happy thoughts may work after all: New research published in the journal Headache found that when people used a type of positive meditation called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), they experienced fewer head crushers per month. Plus, the MBSR patients reported headaches that were shorter in duration and less disabling, increased mindfulness, and a sense of empowerment when it came to dealing with the pain, meaning that patients felt more in control of their illness and confident that they could deal with the headaches themselves. (You'll score these 17 Powerful Benefits of Meditation too.)
Spring showers may bring May flowers, but they also have an uglier side effect. According to research by the Montefiore Headache Center in New York City, people with chronic headaches see a spike during season changes. Reasons for the correlation aren't known, but scientists guess that allergies, temperature fluxuations, and even changes in the amount of sunlight may play a role. Instead of cursing the calendar, use this info to plan ahead for seasonal equinoxes, wrote Brian Gosberg, M.D. and lead researcher, in the paper. Take steps to eliminate other headache triggers by reducing stress and alcohol intake and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.
Tweeting about your migraine won't make it go away, but the social support you get from sharing your pain online will make it easier to deal with, according to a new study from the University of Michigan. People who used this "tweetment" felt less alone in their pain and more understood, a key tool in dealing with chronic pain. If Twitter isn't your jam, reaching out to others in any way—whether that's via Facebook, message boards, Instagram, or just picking up the phone—can provide similar relief.
Reducing stress is often one of the first things doctors advise. But the real issue may not be how much pressure is in your life, but rather how balanced that chaos is, according to a 2014 study published in the journal Neurology. Researchers found that people were five times more likely to experience a headache in the six hours after a stressful event ended than during it. (See: 10 Weird Ways Your Body Reacts to Stress.) "It is important for people to be aware of rising stress levels and attempt to relax during periods of stress rather than allowing a major build up to occur," said study co-author Dawn Buse, Ph.D., an associate professor of clinical neurology, in a press release.
Breathing is one of thosee basic bodily functions you probably never think about, but you should pay attention to your breath—especially during a headache. A meta-analysis found that nearly 80 percent of people reported relief from headaches from simply breathing in more oxygen, compared to just 20 percent in a placebo group. While the researchers aren't yet sure exactly why this helps, the effect was significant enough that they recommend it to everyone—especially as there are no side effects. Increasing your oxygen levels can be as simple as practicing relaxation breathing techniques, exercising to increase air flow and circulation, or even hitting the local O2 bar (or your doctor's office) for a breath of air infused with a higher percentage of oxgyen. (Try one of these 3 Breathing Techniques for Dealing with Anxiety, Stress, and Low Energy.)
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a type of psychological therapy that focuses on problem solving and changing patterns of behavior, has long been known to help with mood disorders and other sources of psychological pain, but a new study shows it also helps physical pain. Researchers in Ohio found that nearly 90 percent of patients trained in CBT experienced 50 percent fewer headaches every month. These impressive results led the authors to conclude that CBT should be offered as a primary remedy for chronic headaches rather than an add-on to medication, as it is currently viewed. To learn how to use CBT for headache relief, seek out a therapist who specializes in CBT or check out this overview designed by headache researcher Natasha Dean, Ph.D.
Allergies are a pain in the neck and head, as many migraines are triggered by allergies, say researchers from the University of Cincinnati. Instead of trying to endure pesky environmental allergies, the docs say it's important to treat them. In fact, when migraine patients were given allergy shots, they experienced 52 percent fewer migraines. And while some allergies may be related to seasonal changes, the link to headaches was found in all types of allergies, including pet, dust, mold, and foods, making it important to stay on top of your symptoms year round. (In the spirit of skipping pills, try one of these 5 Easy At Home Allergy Remedies.)
You can now add headaches to the list of conditions obesity is linked to. According to a 2013 study published in Neurology, the more overweight someone was the more likely they were to experience migraines, chronic headaches, and intermittent headaches. While the researchers were careful to note the reason for the connection is unknown, one theory is that the headaches are caused by inflammatory proteins secreted by excess fat. This link was especially true for people under 50 years old. "As obesity is a risk factor that can potentially be modified, and since some medications for migraine can lead to weight gain or loss, this is important information for people with migraines and their doctors," said lead author B. Lee Peterlin, in a press release.
Science is now backing up what our great-grandmothers knew: that many herbal remedies work as well as—sometimes even better than—current prescription meds. Feverfew, peppermint oil, ginger, magnesium, riboflavin, fish and olive oils, and eucalyptus have all shown impressive results in the research. One natural cure to be careful of, however, is caffeine. A study in the Journal of Headache Pain looked at more than 50,000 people and found that while a small amount of caffeine (about one cup of coffee) provided moderate headache relief, chronic caffeine consumption is one of the most common causes of headaches, and even intermittent use can cause a "rebound" pain after the caffeine wears off. (Tired? Try these 5 Moves for Instant Energy.)