Which Drug-Free Headache Remedies Actually Work? | The Survival DoctorPart 1 in my two-part headache series. (Read part 2, about headache stretches, here.)

by James Hubbard, MD, MPH

There’s nothing like a lingering headache to spoil your week. And if you have really bad one during a disaster it could be downright devastating.

Well, lucky for you I just read a good review of study-proven complementary and alternative medicine treatments for chronic tension and migraine headaches on Medscape, by Désirée A. Lie, MD, MSEd—in other words, headache remedies that have been proven to work.

Rebound Headaches

Now, don’t get me wrong, taking your favorite over-the-counter headache reliever on occasion is fine. But if you’re having to take them on a regular basis—have you ever heard of rebound headaches?

They can happen with any headache medicine you use more than an average of twice a week over a period of more than a couple of months. No one knows exactly why, but some people start having a bad headache (that they wouldn’t otherwise have) every time the medicine starts wearing off. And any pain reliever, from acetaminophen to ibuprofen or naproxen to opiates such as codeine to the prescription migraine medicines can do this.

The only way to cure this is going cold turkey and bearing with the headache until it wears off. And then come the situations where you don’t know if the withdrawal from the medicine is causing the headache or the headache is just getting worse.

And besides that, taking more than the recommended doses of these medications can damage your liver or kidneys.

So what can you do instead? Your doctor can help you decide, but here are some alternatives with proven track records.

Proven Chronic-Headache Remedies
Best Survival Headache Remedies?

When you’re in a disaster or in the middle of nowhere and have a headache but no meds, biofeedback is a good remedy to keep in your back pocket, so to speak. So are the headache stretches I’ll talk about in my next post. With either remedy, you need nothing but yourself and some training.

Biofeedback. This technique is best taught by a licensed biofeedback therapist. Ask your doctor for a referral or recommendation. In these sessions you’re taught how to control your body functions, such as how to slow your heart rate down and relax certain muscles. Biofeedback has been proven to decrease the frequency of migraine or tension headaches. And the beauty is, there’s no medicine to take, and after some training sessions, you can do the technique anywhere you happen to be.


The following have been shown to prevent migraines, but there haven’t been enough good studies to prove if they help tension headaches. That doesn’t mean they don’t work for them. It just means we don’t know.

Magnesium, 360 to 600 mg in two or three divided doses daily. Read precautions from the National Institutes of Health here.

Coenzyme Q-10, 100 mg three times a day. Read precautions here.

Butterbur, 50-75 mg daily. I have a whole post on butterbur and other things it may work for here. Read precautions here.

Other Common Headache Remedies
Is It Working?

One concrete way to see if a treatment is working is to keep a headache diary. Every day, write when your headache started, when it stopped and the intensity on a scale of 1 to 10. Give any treatment a few weeks to take effect, but at that time, reviewing the diary can give you some objective evidence of whether the treatment is working.

The above headache remedies have the most proof from studies to back up their efficacy. Here are some other common remedies that many people think help, but we just don’t have any good-quality studies to prove whether they work—on tension or migraine headaches. (Talk to your doctor and understand precautions about any supplement before taking it.)


Alpha-lipoic acid


Relaxation techniques

After you’ve had your headaches evaluated by a doctor, he or she can help you decide on a plan that works best for you.

Next post, I’ll give you some stretches to do to try to nip the headaches in the bud.

You may also be interested in “14 Warning Signs Your Headache Could Be Serious.”


Photo: Flickr/Chapendra