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Some Basics About Headaches

Headaches are the most common form of pain. They’re a major reason why people miss work or school or visit a health care provider. This fact sheet focuses on two types of headache: tension headaches and migraines. Researchers have studied complementary health approaches for both.

Tension Headaches and Migraines: What’s the Difference?

  • Tension headaches—the most common type of headache—are caused by tight muscles in the shoulders, neck, scalp, and jaw. They may be related to stress, depression, or anxiety and may occur more often in people who work too much, sleep too little, miss meals, or drink alcoholic beverages.
  • Migraine headaches—which affect about 12 percent of Americans—involve moderate to severe throbbing pain, often on one side of the head. During a migraine, people are sensitive to light and sound and may feel nauseated. Some people have visual disturbances before a migraine—like seeing zigzag lines or flashing lights, or temporarily losing their vision. Anxiety, stress, lack of food or sleep, exposure to light, or hormonal changes (in women) can trigger migraines. Genes that control the activity of some brain cells may play a role in causing migraines.

For more information about headaches, visit the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke Web site.

What the Science Says About Complementary Health Approaches for Headache

Research has produced promising results for some complementary health approaches for tension headache or migraine. For other approaches, evidence of effectiveness is limited or conflicting.

Mind and Body Approaches

Mind and body approaches that have been studied for headache include acupuncture, biofeedback, massage, relaxation techniques, spinal manipulation, and tai chi.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture is a technique in which practitioners stimulate specific points on the body, most often by inserting thin needles through the skin.

There have been many studies of acupuncture for headache. The combined results from these studies indicate that acupuncture may help relieve headache pain, but that much of its benefit may be due to nonspecific effects including expectation, beliefs, and placebo responses rather than specific effects of needling.

Acupuncture is generally considered safe when performed by an experienced practitioner using sterile needles. Improperly performed acupuncture can cause potentially serious side effects.

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