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How to Treat a Headache Without Drugs

If you find yourself taking headache medication more often than you'd like, try these drug-free approaches next time a headache looms.

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS,
July 14, 2015
Episode #340

Page 1 of 2

Crista posted a question on the Nutrition Diva Facebook page, wondering whether there are any alternatives to Tylenol or ibuprofen for headaches. “I get terrible sinus and sometimes migraine headaches," she writes, "and I take WAY too much Tylenol/ibuprofen.”

There are several heavy-duty drugs that have been approved for the treatment of migraines and chronic headaches, as well as over-the-counter pain relievers, such as the ones Crista mentioned. But many headache sufferers would prefer to use drug-free approaches—and I don’t blame them. Prescription medications can be expensive and many of them have serious safety risks. Even over-the-counter drugs can have unwelcome side effects.

Here are my best tips for relieving headache pain without drugs. Next week, I’ll have some diet and nutrition tips that can help you prevent those headaches from starting in the first place.

Five Drug-Free Ways to Beat Headache Pain

Caffeine

A moderate dose of caffeine can also help relieve a headache (especially the type that cause throbbing or pounding) by constricting the blood vessels that go to the head. You can drink a caffeinated beverage or take a caffeine pill such as No-Doz. If you do take your caffeine in pill form, be sure to drink plenty of fluids with it. Although caffeinated beverages aren't dehydrating, caffeine pills can be.

See also: How Much Water Should I Drink?

As a bonus, caffeine also enhances the effectiveness of over-the-counter pain relievers like aspirin or Tylenol. In fact, one popular headache remedy (Excedrin) combines Tylenol, aspirin and caffeine—something to keep in mind if it’s close to bedtime. If it's too late in the day for caffeine (or you don’t “do” caffeine), an icepack applied to the forehead or temples can also restrict blood vessels and relieve headache pain.

Exercise

Although working out may be the last thing you feel like doing with a headache coming on, aerobic exercise can actually abort an impending headache, perhaps by stimulating the production of pain-reducing neurotransmitters. A stationary bike may be better than jogging because it avoids impact that can aggravate a pounding head.

Gatorade or Diluted Fruit Juice

If you feel a headache coming on, drink Gatorade or diluted fruit juice. Dehydration can cause headaches—and doctors who specialize in headache disorders observe that chronic headache sufferers may be more susceptible or sensitive to dehydration. Low blood sugar or fasting can also bring on a headache, which is why migraine sufferers are advised not to skip meals.

A sports drink such as Gatorade or diluted fruit juice provides a quick dose of fluids, plus a small amount of carbohydrate that will quickly boost sagging blood sugar and can also help quell the nausea that frequently accompanies migraines.

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