Headaches can really disrupt your day — stop you from doing the things you love, like meeting friends, catching the latest movie, or even performing simple everyday activities. Certain painkillers may help alleviate headaches, but they don’t always work — and they don’t work for everyone. Here are some natural remedies you can try at home that may help relieve headache pain.
Supported by new studies each year, one of the simplest ways to treat headaches on the spot is by activating pressure points.
Acupuncture involves the stimulation of acupoints, located at specific sites of the human body, by inserting tiny needles and carefully manipulating them. It has shown potential as a non-pharmaceutical treatment for pain relief. Available evidence suggests that acupuncture therapy may also alleviate acute pain in conditions such as tension-type headaches and migraines. Studies show that people with migraine symptoms — notably the frequency of attacks — may find relief by using acupuncture to modify pain signals, reducing pro-inflammatory messengers and reducing the effects of the fight-or-flight response.
Acupressure addresses the same connections between specific body parts and migraine symptoms, but does not use needles, and is an encouraging alternative for those seeking temporary migraine relief.
When you develop a sudden headache or migraine, it’s instinctive to hold or rub the area of discomfort, frequently between the eyes. Interestingly, this spot is also a key pressure point for headache relief. And there are several others like it, all over your body.
While Acupuncture is a popular way to de-stress the body by means of specialized needles, a similar technique exists to relax the brain: Acupressure. With its basis in traditional Chinese mediation, Acupressure is a form of massage therapy that applies physical pressure to specific areas of your body to bring headache relief. In simple terms, it’s a type of massage that tells your mind to calm down, redirecting tension and potentially reducing headache pain or duration.
It is similar to reflexology in the way interlinked areas of the body, such as feet, hands and ears, can be gently stimulated, sending signals to the brain to relieve headache tension. The main difference with acupressure is that this method focuses on energy lines known as meridian lines — 800 reflex points, in fact — that run the length of your body.
When treating headaches, it’s important to understand the different types of headaches, typically categorized as primary and secondary.
Primary headaches, which tend to be the most familiar, include tension headache, migraine, and cluster headache. Headaches with an underlying cause from either infection, disease, or trauma are classed as secondary headaches.
About 96% of people will experience a headache disorder in their life. In 2018, The American Journal of Medicine found that around 40% of people in the world suffer from tension headaches and about 10% worldwide are affected by severe migraines, found to be more common in females. With millions of dollars spent each year on image scan diagnoses, it’s potentially highly beneficial to explore the science behind natural headache treatments like pressure point relief.
The National Library of Medicine published a 2017 report exploring the difference between acupressure therapy and sodium valproate — frequently used in treating migraines — in the prevention of chronic migraines. The results show that, while acupressure didn’t definitively reduce the frequency of migraine attacks, pressure point activation on the head and neck did reduce nausea symptoms notably when compared to sodium valproate treatment alone. So, while acupuncture does alleviate some migraine symptoms, further research is needed to suggest it as a one-for-all solution for people with chronic migraine.
More recent studies also tested the impact of massage therapy on patients with chronic headache tension. In 2019, scientists looked at the effects of targeted massage therapy on the neck, specifically the suboccipital region, and whether it reduced the pain, frequency, and duration of tension-type headaches. Six randomized trials were carried out with 505 patients over a period of eight weeks. Conclusions indicate a reduction in headache intensity at four weeks, but no substantial change in intensity, frequency, or duration at eight weeks, which suggests targeted physical therapy on the neck area may be more effective as a short-term treatment for headache-type tension.
Myofascial Trigger Points (MTrPs) are focal disruptions in skeletal muscle that can refer pain to the head and reproduce the pain patterns of tension-type headaches. Referred pain happens when the complex network of interconnected sensory nerves causes pain to be felt at a spot other than where it originated.
In 2016, researchers wanted to determine if massages focused on MTrPs might reduce headache pain. Fifty-six participants with tension-type headache received 12 massage or placebo sessions across six weeks. Additional treatment explored if there was any change in pain at MTrPs in the upper trapezius and sub-occipital muscles, where significant pressure points can be found. The results indicated reductions in headache frequency and pain.
The Cochrane Library conducted an updated review of acupuncture as an effective prevention of headache tension, with 2349 participants meeting the study criteria. Of participants receiving acupuncture, 205 of 391 had a 50% reduction in headache frequency, again suggesting that acupuncture can be effective in some ways to treat chronic tension‐type headaches.
Pressure points work differently for everyone, but headache sufferers might benefit from this type of massage therapy if medication hasn’t helped. Acupressure specialists suggest that stimulating pressure points focused around the eyes, neck, shoulders, and hands may help reduce headache tension and offer pain relief.
More research is needed to better understand how pressure points may aid in headache treatment, but the following pressure points have been shown to improve headache-related discomfort via reflexology and acupressure therapy:
Located between your eyebrows, where the bridge of your nose meets your forehead, the third eye pressure point is an area you may have already focused on when a headache strikes. Using gentle physical pressure to activate this area can soothe muscle tension and help relieve eye strain and sinus pressure, both common causes of primary headaches.
To activate this spot, use the tip of your index finger and press firmly on the area, applying pressure for a few minutes.
The National Headache Institute recommends repeating this throughout the week to help ease discomfort in patients with chronic headache pain. Some health experts believe the Third Eye technique may increase melatonin production levels, contributing to healthier sleep cycles, a key factor in headache relief.
Also known as Bright Light Pressure Point, this familiar spot is located on either side of the bridge of your nose, near the Third Eye pressure spot, and below the tip of each eyebrow. If you’ve ever spent large amounts of time staring at a screen or harsh lights, you might have felt the urge to squeeze this area with two fingers to ease eye strain.
To try this for headache relief, use both index fingers and apply pressure to both activation points at once. Hold for a few seconds, then release and repeat. This is a particularly successful massage area for eye strain and relieving sinus pressure caused by illness or allergies.
Tension in your neck can lead to headache pain, due to the strain on your muscles and posture. Stimulating this area can help relieve headache discomfort caused by neck strain. To find the Gates of Consciousness, place both hands behind your head. And with your palms open and gently cradling the back of your head, point your thumbs down, adding pressure to both sides of the base of your skull. Using circular motions, massage this area to help relieve tension.
If you’re finding it tricky, you can try using your index and middle fingers on each pressure point instead. Remember to apply pressure for about ten seconds, then release and repeat.
A few pressure points can be found on the neck. The shoulder well consists of two spots at the back of your neck, between the base of your neck and shoulder points.
To stimulate the shoulder well, use the index and middle fingers of whichever hand is on the opposite side — making sure you are comfortable — and apply firm but gentle pressure to this point. Do this for ten seconds and then repeat on the other side. You may find that this helps alleviate muscle soreness and headache tension.
Headache pain can seem complicated because help may come from massaging spots that you wouldn’t necessarily have connected with migraine or headache tension. Because hands absorb a lot of stress throughout the day, it can be particularly soothing to massage them regularly, loosening tension and providing immediate and gentle stress relief.
A notable spot is the Union Valley pressure point. Find this pressure point on the soft skin between your thumb and index finger. Take care not to apply too much pressure to this sensitive area. Rather, press firmly, applying pressure in place or massaging the area with your thumb in small circles. Repeat on the opposite hand.
Finding headache relief is a different journey for each person. Before applying home treatments, always consult a specialist to determine your headache type and situation. Severe migraines, or headaches that include dizziness, nausea, or vomiting, should be diagnosed by an expert and not self-treated via pressure points. Pregnancy, heart disease, and sudden-onset headaches are also scenarios where you should consult a headache specialist before applying reflexology or acupressure methods.
More research is needed on pressure points and their effect on relieving migraine pain, but evidence exists that acupressure may be an effective form of tension relief. But with careful application of the pressure point techniques covered in this article, you may find that you can bring some relief to your tension headaches, stress headaches, and sinus pain.
Reflexology and acupressure are natural, non-pharmaceutical methods of headache treatment, making them ideal to try in the comfort of your home, even as a complementary stress relief practice in your day-to-day routine.
Find more in-depth information on how to prevent migraines from Mable’s team of migraine specialists.
Headaches have different causes and triggers, and the best way forward to treat them is through a specialized treatment program that considers each individual.
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