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6 Headache hacks that don't involve drugs

Lisa Fogarty

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Lisa Fogarty

Lisa Fogarty has written numerous articles for USA Today, The Stir, Opposing Views and other publications. She has covered everything from red carpet events to the discovery of toxic PCBs on school windows. She lives on Long Island, N.Y....

Expert-approved methods to cure headaches without taking aspirin

I'm not a staunch antidrug person, but about five years ago, I suffered the migraine of nightmares while on a flight — at the start of my six-hour flight, I should add — with neither a white nor pink miracle pill within reach.

I wouldn't be able to explain it now, but I blocked my eyes with a bandana, focused on thoughts of flowing water and somehow inhaled and exhaled my way to pain-free salvation. Really — this happened to the least kooky person on the planet. The best part: It took about 20 minutes, slightly longer than it would have had I taken drugs.

There are numerous alternative pain methods for the many people who suffer occasional and even daily headaches (18 percent of women suffer from migraines, as opposed to 6 percent of men, something experts contribute to hormones). We spoke with experts and narrowed it down to six methods they say are most effective.

1. Cognitive behavioral therapy

Consider headaches little more than a symptom of a bigger problem and then go hard and attack the problem. "Changes to one's thinking, utilizing cognitive restructuring, can result in decreased stress, and ultimately fewer and/or less intense headaches," said licensed psychologist Dr. Samantha Rafie. "In addition to the cognitive component of this treatment, it is equally important to identify behavioral, environmental and other triggers which result in or exacerbate headaches, then working to make behavioral changes to manage the identified triggers."

More: 6 Things every migraine sufferer should know

2. Massage therapy

Our hands automatically reach for our weary heads when we feel pain, which provides the first clue that a really good massage can effectively treat a headache. "So many of our headaches are caused by muscle tension," said Dr. Kathy Gruver, practitioner, speaker and author of several mind, body and spirit books. "And in my experience, if you wake up with a headache, it tends to be jaw tension from either grinding or clenching your teeth. Doing a deep tissue on the neck and shoulders can soothe those headaches quickly. I recently had a client who had been prescribed three different headache meds without even a clear diagnosis. After about 20 minutes, we realized that the headache was occurring on the side where she was cradling the phone against her ear. Ten minutes of massage got rid of her headache and with a change in her work station and phone habits, it's never come back."

3. Natural supplements

Before you step foot into a health food store, do your homework so that you don't walk out with a million dollars' worth of supplements that might help pain or might just smell lovely on your shelf. Dr. Carolyn Dean, medical doctor, nutrition expert and author of The Complete Natural Medicine Guide to Women's Health, recommends magnesium — which she says helped to avoid the thickened blood and tiny clots that can cause blood vessel spasms and tension headache pain — vitamin B2 and the herb feverfew. "Not all forms of magnesium are easily absorbed," Dean reminds us. "One of the most absorbable forms of nutritional magnesium is magnesium citrate powder, which can be taken with hot or cold water and can be sipped throughout the day."

More: How low magnesium is affecting your hormonal balance

4. Acupuncture

One thing that hurts far less than a headache and can even cure one? Allowing a skilled acupuncturist to stick needles in your body — which doesn't hurt one bit, I swear. "In acupuncture, instead of one aspirin for every headache, we individualize it to the person," said Health and Wellness Expert and author Tiffany Cruikshank, founder of Yoga Medicine.

"For those coming in with tension headaches, we often use points on the neck and head to relieve tension and for those with migraines or other types of headaches we may use points on the arms or legs primarily. But for either one, we use a combination of about 5-20 points for each patient. For tension headaches, most people will see some relief after one session, but it will increase with each treatment until they are gone, generally needing 3-5 treatments total. If they are working a lot or creating more tension and stress, they may need to come back for a treatment from time to time. For more serious migraines, most people see changes after 2-3 treatments and sometimes need ongoing care (once a month or so) depending on the person."

5. A better diet

If this one seems too simple, it is — but how many of us are drinking enough water to keep our bodies hydrated and (honestly) eliminating the toxins in our diets that can contribute to headaches? Dr. Chris Niedzinski of Innerlink Chiropractic identifies several possible headache culprits that mask themselves as delicious or even healthy: caffeine, artificial sweeteners, sugar, grains (many people suffer gluten intolerance and get relief from headaches when they rid their diets of wheat) and foods that contain excitotoxins, such as canned soups, frozen dinners, fast foods and diet foods.

6. Yoga

Cruikshank says really simple poses — poses you can do in the comfort and privacy of your home — can be effective for headaches. "Poses like Child's Pose, Down Dog, Forward Folds and Legs Up the Wall can be very helpful," she said. "For migraines, try Child's Pose or Legs Up the Wall with a scarf wrapped around your eyes and forehead at a comfortable pressure."

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