Alternative Headache Treatments

There are several "non-traditional" or complementary treatments that might be used to help relieve chronic headache pain.

Biofeedback helps a person learn stress-reduction skills by providing information about muscle tension, heart rate, and other vital signs as the person attempts to relax. It is used to learn total body relaxation and also to gain control over certain bodily functions that cause tension and physical pain.

Biofeedback can be used to help you learn how your body responds in stressful situations, and how to better cope. If a headache, such as a migraine, begins slowly, many people can use biofeedback to stop the attack before it becomes full blown.

The equipment used in biofeedback includes:
Electromyograph (EMG) This measures the electrical activity in the muscles to determine the amount of muscle tension. Small, flat metal sensors, called electrodes, are attached to the skin (usually on the forehead). The electrodes measure the electrical activity in the muscles directly underneath the electrodes and adjoining muscles. (For example, the forehead muscle has interconnections with the jaw, neck, shoulder, and scalp muscles.) The electrical activity of the muscles will be measured and displayed as numbers or electrical waves on a screen that the person can view.

The electrodes do not transmit electrical energy, they only measure it, so no electrical current is placed into your body by this machine. The forehead muscle is often used for relaxation training because this is a tension-collecting area and can lead to tension headaches. 

Temperature trainer This is a device that produces a digital readout of temperature, similar to the readout of the time given by a digital watch. There is also a sound that rises in pitch as the temperature increases. The temperature measuring sensors are attached to the fingers of your dominant hand. Skin temperature of the hands and feet vary according to the activation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). High activation (stress response) produces cool or cold skin. Low activation (relaxation response) results in warm skin temperature.

Heart rate monitor Your heart rate is monitored by a photocell sensor (plethysmograph) attached either to your fingertip or earlobe. This sensor picks up changes in heart rate, measured in beats per minute (BPM). These sensors are identical to the ones found in training spas and gymnasiums when using the treadmill, exercise bicycle, and other machines for improving cardiovascular fitness.

Among other benefits, researchers have found that acupuncture might provide relief from chronic headache pain. Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese system of health care that involves the insertion of very fine, solid needles into certain points of the body. Acupuncture stimulates the body's ability to resist or overcome illnesses and conditions by correcting energy imbalances. Acupuncture also prompts the body to produce chemicals that decrease or eliminate painful sensations.

There are nearly 12,000 acupuncture points (called acu-points) along the body's 14 major meridians, or energy-carrying channels. Sixteenth century Chinese doctors used the term "ch'i" (pronounced "chee") to describe the energy that circulates through meridians. The belief is that illness or pain is caused by a disruption of ch'i, leading to an imbalance of energy. Acupuncture can correct this energy disruption.

Many acu-points are near nerves. When stimulated, these nerves cause a dull ache or feeling of fullness in the muscle. The stimulated muscle sends a message to the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord), causing the release of endorphins (a morphine-like chemical that is produced in our own bodies during times of pain or stress). Endorphins, along with other neurotransmitters (body chemicals that modify nerve impulses), block the message of pain from being delivered up to the brain. 

In a treatment series, the acupuncturist uses different combinations of points, different needling techniques, or both. These combinations help stimulate new sources of healing as the patient's response to treatment is observed.

There are 6,500 licensed acupuncturists in the United States, and 3,000 doctors who perform acupuncture as part of their medical practice. In addition, the World Health Organization currently recognizes more than 40 medical problems, ranging from allergies to AIDS, that can be helped by acupuncture treatment.

Massage is a great way to reduce stress and relieve tension. It is especially effective for relieving tight, tender muscles in the back of your head, neck, and shoulders. For some people, massage might provide relief from headache pain, especially headaches caused by tension. However, the value of massage in treating headaches has not been fully determined.

Essential oils
Some studies have shown that lavender, ginger, peppermint, and wintergreen oils might help relieve tension-type headaches. You might get relief simply by smelling the oil, or by applying it to the nape of your neck and your temples.

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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. For additional health information, please contact the Center for Consumer Health Information at the Cleveland Clinic (216) 444-3771 or toll-free (800) 223-2273 extension 43771. If you prefer, you may visit or This document was last reviewed on: 7/15/2004