Those who suffer from migraine pain are no strangers to experimentation when it comes to alternative migraine treatments. Sometimes, the pain is so severe that you’ll do just about anything to make it go away—even if the method seems a bit unconventional.
The good news is there are many alternative migraine treatment options available to choose from. The bad news is, it’s not easy to sift through the clutter to find what actually works—and beyond that, there’s the added complication of finding the right treatment for you.
To help demystify your options for we rounded up some of the most popular alternative migraine treatments available to find out what’s real, what’s not, and what you should know.
What are alternative migraine treatments?
First of all, it’s important to define the phrase “alternative migraine treatments” in order to understand how choosing the right one can potentially help. “Alternative migraine treatments” is an umbrella term for the many different forms of possible methods individuals use to treat their migraine beyond medication.
From acupuncture, to piercings, to essential oils, alternative treatments include a variety of practices people use to find relief. Some of the most popular alternative migraine treatments include:
- daith piercings
- migraine headbands
- marijuana and CBD
- supplements and vitamins
- aromatherapy and essential oils
- stress management
The treatments vary greatly and can affect individuals differently, so it’s important to know the facts so you can determine what methods may work for you... and which to avoid.
What you should know before seeking complementary treatments
It can be easy to give the side-eye to alternative treatment options, especially ones that may look a little strange (futuristic-looking headbands or poking yourself with needles, anyone?). But just because something sounds unconventional or is unfamiliar doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it, especially if the evidence supports its worth, says Dr. Sara Crystal, a clinical neurologist and Cove Medical Director. However, it’s also important for individuals to realize that someone else’s miracle treatment might not work for them, and vice versa.
“Triggers and symptoms vary from person to person, and some of the alternative treatments target specific symptoms and triggers,” Dr. Crystal says.
To help you figure out the options that will combat your own triggers and work for you, we broke down everything you need to know about the different kinds of complementary treatments.
While there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that suggests a daith piercing—also known as the piercing of the innermost cartilage fold of the ear—can ease migraine symptoms, there’s no hard and fast science to support the claims. Yet that doesn’t stop supporters from celebrating its effectiveness, especially on social media.
While the reasoning behind a daith piercing makes sense—much like acupuncture, an ear piercing at the crus of the helix hits a pressure point associated with your digestive organs—the American Migraine Foundation believes that many results are temporary and/or simply a byproduct of the placebo effect. Studies show that a lack of scientific evidence paired with the associated risks of insertion, like infection, make daith piercings a dubious remedy for chronic migraine. While skepticism continues to prevail, researchers do believe the overwhelming anecdotal evidence calls for it to be studied further.
But for now—unless you feel a daith piercing benefits your overall aesthetic!—there’s no scientific reason to add that stud to your ear.
Transcranial magnetic stimulation, or the method used within headbands that promise to alleviate migraine pain, is effective for some patients. However, Dr. Crystal warns, over-the-counter magnetic headbands don’t provide the same mechanism and there’s no evidence showing them to be effective for migraine prevention or acute treatment.
What is effective, though, is Cefaly. Approved by the FDA as the first device of its kind to prevent migraine attacks in March 2014, the Cefaly device is a headband-like apparatus powered by batteries and worn on the forehead, just above the eyebrows. Studies reviewed by the FDA support claims that sufferers using the supraorbital nerve stimulator experienced fewer attacks per month than patients using a placebo device, and other research confirms the use of Cefely is consistently beneficial for migraine sufferers.
“[The Cefaly] is available in two versions, one meant for preventive use, and one with settings for preventing and treating acute attacks,” Dr. Crystal explains. “As a preventive device, it’s meant to be used for at least one 20-minute session daily—though many people benefit more from use twice a day.”
Dr. Crystal has found Cefaly to be most helpful for patients who experience headache pain in the forehead (versus those who primarily experience pain in the back of the head). Yet there’s one big problem associated with the otherwise helpful tool: It’s expensive.
“A major disadvantage is that it’s not covered by insurance, though a free trial is available,” Dr. Crystal says. “Approximately half of my patients return it after the free trial ends.”
Those who can afford to spend the $300 the Cefaly costs and its accompanying electrodes ($25 for a set of three) should give it a try, but Dr. Crystal recommends not to waste your time (or money) buying a knock-off version.
Marijuana and CBD
A quick internet search concludes that there’s not much marijuana can’t do. From decreasing stress levels, to soothing achy muscles, to stifling feelings of nausea in patients undergoing chemotherapy, the limits of cannabis seem endless. But can marijuana help alleviate migraine pain?
Preliminary research points to yes, but more research is needed to study the long term effects of using both marijuana and cannabidiol, or CBD, to treat migraine.
However, the reported findings so far are fairly positive: A 2016 study found that 40% of participants who used medical marijuana reported fewer migraine attacks, and a 2017 study confirmed that the active compounds in cannabis are an effective treatment for migraine prevention (but not for acute pain).
Of course, in addition to drawbacks like drowsiness associated with marijuana, limited research of its effects doesn’t only apply to migraine sufferers—so be sure to double check your facts when researching the health benefits of cannabis. There’s also the small matter (ok, it’s a big matter) of whether or not cannabis is legal in your state. Peruse this interactive map and be sure to double check your state cannabis laws.
As for CBD, one of the many active compounds found in the cannabis plant that won’t get you high but claims to have a variety of other therapeutic benefits, there are some blurred lines when it comes to its legality. However, in most states, acquiring CBD oil is legal and relatively easy. Dr. Crystal says CBD can be helpful for pain and nausea associated with migraine. It can even improve sleep, which is often a problem for people with migraine. So while CBD might not necessarily stop an oncoming attack in its tracks, it might be able to help you deal with the inevitable pain.
The ancient Chinese practice of acupuncture may seem a little outdated, but sometimes there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel. Studies show that the method—which involves sticking needles in specific areas of the body to alleviate pain—can be a worthy treatment option.
A 2016 systematic review of 22 clinical trials focusing on acupuncture’s effectiveness in treating migraine found that there is evidence that the practice reduces the frequency of headaches within individuals who experience migraine attacks. In fact, there’s even reason to believe that its effect is similar to what preventive medication can do.
The idea of being pricked with needles may sound scary, but it just might be worth it: Research gathered from the 2016 review found that, with acupuncture, the frequency of headaches were dropped by 50% or more in up to 59% of individuals, with effects lasting for six months or longer. According to another study on alternative medicine, those with frequent episodic or chronic tension-type headaches may gain the most value from acupuncture (either in addition to preventive medication or on its own).
Interested in the idea, but want a less, well, needle-y experience? Acupressure, a massage that applies pressure to certain spots on your body, can deliver similar effects, though it’s important to note that there’s less research behind it.
Supplements and vitamins
Most people know that there’s a connection between your diet and migraine, so it makes sense that taking certain supplements could suppress migraine symptoms or help alleviate head pain—especially if food is a trigger for you.
Dr. Crystal recommends several supplements that have demonstrated efficacy in migraine prevention and are generally well-tolerated and safe, including magnesium, CoQ10 (coenzyme Q10), boswellia, and riboflavin, as well as Cove's unique combination supplements Beam, Super B, and Oasis.
When buying herbal supplements, it’s important to ensure that they are free of pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs), which can be toxic and harmful. Choosing a product with a ‘PA-free’ label will help you steer clear of carcinogens and hepatotoxins.
Certain supplements can, unfortunately, have negative side effects for different individuals, so Dr. Crystal recommends talking to your doctor to see what, if any supplements might be a viable solution for you.
Aromatherapy and essential oils
Aromatherapy entails breathing in essential oils via a diffuser, or rubbing them into your skin, to invite relaxation and alleviate pain. While much of the success of aromatherapy is anecdotal, there is research that reinforces the benefits of particular essential oils and scents. One study suggests that inhaling lavender essential oil can be a safe and effective way to manage migraine headaches.
The American Migraine Foundation recommends using high-quality products such as lavender, peppermint, and tangerine essential oils for comforting and soothing purposes, but reminds individuals there is little to no proof of the effectiveness of aromatherapy to treat headaches.
If you do turn to aromatherapy for migraine relief, remember that pure essential oils (with the exception of lavender) should never be applied to your skin undiluted, as irritation and burning may occur—and if you have a horrible headache, the last thing you need is more pain.
In the ‘easier said than done’ category, one alternative treatment for migraine is finding ways to relieve stress. Perceived stress is one the most common migraine triggers, so finding ways to mitigate said tension, whether through relaxation techniques or other methods like talk therapy, can help reduce the frequency of attacks.
Several studies analyzing the effectiveness of relaxation training have found it to be effective in relieving both migraine and tension-type headaches. On average, 43% to 55% of individuals experienced a 50% decrease in headache frequency. Another study found that cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), where a patient and therapist worked together to identify and mitigate personal headache-inducing situations, helped to reduce headache frequency in 40% to 50% of individuals.
To reduce the frequency of stress-related migraine attacks, The American Migraine Foundation recommends prioritizing what’s important in your life to prevent wasting time on non-essentials, staying active, making time for significant relationships, and getting enough sleep.
Since stress is such a common trigger, we wrote a whole guide to stress management for migraine sufferers. You can find it here.
What’s the best alternative treatment for you?
Finding the best alternative treatment for your migraine might require some trial-and-error, but if you’re aware of your triggers, it can be easier to sift through the above and figure out the best options for you. It's important to remember that you can combine alternative treatments with prescription migraine medications and that you don't have to choose between the two. And if all this information feels daunting, Dr. Crystal recommends talking to your doctor. Migraine is personal, so finding the right treatment plan isn’t always easy.
The information provided in this article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely upon the content provided in this article for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.
These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. The supplements referenced are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
Photo by Trent Szmolnik on Unsplash