A sceptic’s guide to natural headache remedies

My mother is a doctor. I therefore grew up with a healthy suspicion of any non-medical treatments. But as anyone experiencing chronic pain knows, when the pills don’t work, you’re willing to try (almost) anything.

I’ve had chronic headaches on and off for a few years now. They are somewhere in between migraines and tension headaches. Light and noise sensitivity, neck ache and lethargy. Not debilitating, but a nasty business, especially when they hang around for days on end. Once I even had a headache for 2 months straight. And no, the doctors assure me it’s not anything serious. Just a combination of environmental factors, medication side effects, stress, too much time at the computer and those pesky female hormones.

So why am I telling you all this? Well, in case any of you might be experiencing a similar thorn in your side, I thought I’d share some things that I have discovered work for me.

Let me preface this by saying: I am categorically NOT one of these people who thinks ‘natural is best’. As my mum once sardonically muttered: “Even death is natural!” Before trying any of the below, please make sure you have well and truly tried the medical route. Chat to more than one GP, try the pain killers and preventative medication they recommend. Hear them out about the features of your particular headaches. Make sure they check your headaches aren’t a sign of anything more serious.

But if you’re like me and you’ve tried all of the above, but your diagnosed tension headaches are still bothering you regularly, you may like to consider some of the tips below. Just keep in mind that they are no substitute for medical advice – follow at your own (minimal) risk!

1. Massage

I have always been a fan of massage – not the relaxing type – the full-on, remedial, deep tissue type. Certainly not a relaxing experience – in the short term anyway. I’ve often found that getting a head, neck and shoulder massage nips a brewing headache in the bud, settles down a fully fledged one, or at least reduces tension to prevent another.

My go-to places are the Chinese remedial massage clinics you can find in most shopping malls or arcades (in most parts of Sydney, anyway). They’re cheap and cheerful but often very effective. I don’t generally like to go to the Thai places because they tend to include stretching in their therapy, which I have had a bad experience with once before.

If you’re going to try these places out, just make sure you are clear about what you want and speak up about any injuries and areas to avoid. Give them feedback about the pressure and focus areas, and you’re likely to get some relief.

I should add, however, that a more expensive, more qualified massage therapist or physio is sometimes advisable if you have chronic muscle tension. My current massage therapist – who I drive almost an hour each way to see once a month, she’s that good – is very precise and hugely over qualified, as well as being one of the most intuitive people I’ve ever met.

Oh it’s painful, but since I’ve been seeing her, I’ve discovered muscles I never even knew about that contribute to my headaches. Over time, my headaches are even getting less frequent and intense. I tell you, she knows what she’s doing! If you’re in Sydney and want her details, let me know!!

Something else she put me onto is the Theracane, a very decently priced, funny looking plastic implement with which you can massage your own pressure points in between professional massages. You can order them online for under $10 including postage.

2. Caffeine

Now – disclaimer – I’m told that caffeine can either make or break a headache, and for most people it’s the former. So if you’ve found in the past that caffeine gives you a headache or makes one worse, skip to point 3! But if you have an inkling the odd coffee has helped, you may be in the minority like me. Caffeine is actually one of the most effective remedies for me, if I catch the headache early.

Did you know that caffeine is actually an ingredient in some pain killers because it helps them to be more effective? It’s true. But as my husband, colleagues and friends can testify, a Diet Coke is all I need. They hear the click and hiss of the can opening and know exactly where I’m at. I find if I have a small can of Diet Coke at the beginning of a headache, with or without pain killers, I can frequently nip it in the bud. Who knows why? But it works.

But please be careful with this one – caffeine addiction can also cause withdrawal headaches…so don’t use it too often, even if it does help you!

3. Soothing strips

Now this one I tried when I was desperate for relief and trapped in Priceline during a storewide sale. I can’t explain why, but I have found Kool ‘n’ Soothe Migraine and Headache strips VERY effective, in combination with other treatments and tricks. They work by cooling the forehead and/or back of neck. It’s a bit of a menthol-burny feeling, but if you can stand that for 20 minutes, it really seems to do something – at least for me! Just be sure to follow the instructions and keep them away from sensitive areas e.g. your eyes.

Actually, funny story – I’ve been having trouble finding them in store recently, so to replenish my stock I ordered a heap online. Somehow they made a packing error and sent me around one third of the number I ordered. When I complained, they promptly sent me a new batch – this time about double the number I originally ordered. So I now have about a lifetime supply of these things. If you’re sceptical but want to try one, let me know! I’m happy to give you a free sample.

4. Essential oils

Yeah, I know. It sounds airy fairy. Or at least it always has to THIS natural remedy sceptic. But this one I discovered truly by accident, assuring me that it was no placebo at work!

One evening I was battling a headache that just wouldn’t die and reached into my bedside drawer in the dark to find my lip balm. Frustratingly, it appeared that everything in my bedside drawer felt about the same size and shape (pens, moisturiser, ear plug storage boxes, etc.) and so I accidentally pulled out the wrong item. It was a scented room/pillow spray I had pinched from a hotel room on our recent honeymoon.

As I picked it up, before I worked out what it was, I felt it was leaking. I quickly dropped it and drew my fingers to my nose by impulse to identify it. As I took the first whiff I noticed my headache suddenly fade for about 60 seconds. I was shocked, and confused. I sniffed again, and again the pain immediately reduced for a short time.

At this point I turned on the light and read the ingredients: essential oils, including peppermint and lavender. The next day I did some research and was equally surprised to find that there is actually a fair amount of evidence these two essential oils help to relieve pain and tension.

You have to be careful using the oils – I bought some purpose-made blends from the pharmacy with clear instructions about avoiding risks. I can recommend safely using the InEssence Headache Relief Blend. But a peppermint tea also seems to work a treat!

5. Sleep

Perhaps the most effective ‘natural remedy’ I have found, a bit of simple shut-eye can cure all manner of ills. Unfortunately, this can be unachievable if you need a quick fix in the office, but if you can, in combination with other bits and pieces, it can work a treat.

When suffering from a headache at home on a weekend, or after a long day at work, I usually take some pain killers, put a headache strip on, grab my essential oils and close my eyes for half an hour in a dark room. Afterwards, I feel like a new person, and the headache is often completely gone! Sometimes a nap is even enough on its own.

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