by Stahl RJ

IMAGE Here it comes—the beginning of that dull, throbbing pain of a tension headache. What if you want to feel better without turning to over-the counter or prescription medications? Some natural approaches may work for you.

Drug-Free Headache Relievers

If you are desperately looking for a way to manage tension headaches without the use of drugs, here are some alternative treatments that may either prevent or help relieve tension headaches:


What Does It Involve?

Acupuncture is a type of Traditional Chinese Medicine that has become popular in the United States. This treatment involves inserting very fine needles into specific locations on the surface of the body. There are many different types of acupuncture, including a technique that uses laser beams instead of needles. There have been studies supporting the use of acupuncture to prevent tension headaches.

Your Next Step

If you are interested in trying this treatment, ask your doctor to recommend a qualified acupuncturist who has experience in treating headaches. Read your health insurance policy to find out if acupuncture visits are covered. Keep in mind, too, that most states require acupuncturists to be licensed.


What Does It Involve?

Biofeedback is a way to control processes that are normally involuntary. A biofeedback session involves having sensors attached to your body. These sensors are connected to a biofeedback machine, which translates the data into an image on a monitor or a sound. For example, if you undergo biofeedback for tension headaches, a therapist can teach your strategies to reduce the tension in your muscles, which in turn would produce a less dramatic image on the screen or a quieter sound.

Your Next Step

Since not all states require biofeedback therapists to have a license, proceed cautiously. Make sure that the person has been trained in biofeedback and has experience treating tension headaches. Ask your doctor to recommend a qualified therapist. In addition, look into your insurance plan to find out if the sessions are covered.


What Does It Involve?

Chiropractic is a common treatment that typically involves hands-on manipulation of the vertebrae in the spine. While you may think that chiropractic is only used for back pain, there are actually a range of other conditions that chiropractors can treat, including headaches and pain in other areas of the body. Other providers, such as Osteopathic doctors, may also perform some spinal manipulation.

Your Next Step

If you are interested in working with a chiropractor, you can ask your doctor for a referral or search a professional website, such as the American Chiropractic Association. All chiropractors must have a Doctor of Chiropractic (DC) degree, and they must have a license to work in your state. Most insurance plans do pay for chiropractic care.

Relaxation Therapies

What Do These Involve?

Relaxation therapies include a range of different techniques. Guided imagery is one example that may be helpful. This involves working with a therapist to learn how to use all of your senses to focus on a particular, calming image. Practicing guided imagery can bring your body to a state of deep relaxation.

Your Next Step

States do not require a license for this type of treatment, but there are certification programs for guided imagery, and many practitioners are licensed mental health therapists or nurses. Again, your doctor may be able to recommend someone who has experience in guided imagery.

The Bottom Line

Studies done on these methods may show benefit, but the quality of the studies can vary. Some studies are done well and we can be more certain that the treatment works, while others are not and we are less sure. The bottom line is that alternative options exist and some are better studied than others. Some treatments may work better than others, may work better on a specific person, or may not work every time you use them. Because of this variablilty, it is in your best interest to do your research and find a qualified practitioner who specializes in alternative treatments. You may also want to try different methods.


American Chiropractic Association 

National Headache Foundation 


Headache Network Canada 

Health Canada 


Acupuncture. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: Updated November 9, 2015. Accessed February 10, 2016.

Biofeedback. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: Updated September 18, 2014. Accessed February 10, 2016.

Bove G, Nilsson N. Spinal manipulation in the treatment of episodic tension-type headache: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA. 1998;280(18):1576-1579.

Chiropractic. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: Updated July 17, 2015. Accessed February 10, 2016.

Guided imagery. Breast Cancer website. Available at: Updated May 31, 2013. Accessed February 10, 2016.

Linde K, Allais G, Brinkhaus B, Manheimer E, Vickers A, White AR. Acupuncture for tension-type headache. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2009;(1):CD007587.

Mannix LK, Chandurkar RS, Rybicki LA, Tusek DL, Solomon GD. Effect of guided imagery on quality of life for patients with chronic tension-type headache. Headache. 1999;39(5):326-334.

Nestoriuc Y, Rief W, Martin A. Meta-analysis of biofeedback for tension-type headache: efficacy, specificity, and treatment moderators. J Consult Clin Psychol. 2008;76(3):379-396.

Relaxation therapies. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: Updated September 17, 2012. Accessed April 17, 2014.

Tension headache. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Updated August 24, 2015. Accessed February 10, 2016.

Tension headache. EBSCO Natural and Alternative Treatments website. Available at: Updated December 15, 2015. Accessed February 10, 2016.

Revision Information