These home remedies for headaches give you a range of options for headache relief, and many of them are free or low cost. Note: If you're dealing with constant headaches, diet and lifestyle changes may be needed. Pain is our body's way of getting our attention.
If you have chronic or severe headache pain, please see a healthcare professional. Only your health care provider, personal physician, or pharmacist can provide you with advice on what is safe and effective for your unique needs or diagnose your particular medical history. Material on this site is for general informational purposes only, and is not intended to take the place of a healthcare professional. Be careful out there, folks!
What causes headaches?
Mayo Clinic explains that headaches are classified as primary and secondary:
A primary headache is caused by dysfunction or overactivity of pain-sensitive features in your head. A primary headache isn't a symptom of an underlying disease. Chemical activity in your brain, the nerves or blood vessels of your head outside your skull, or muscles of your head and neck — or some combination of these factors — may play a role in primary headaches. Some people may carry genes that make them more likely to develop such headaches.
The most common primary headaches are:
- Cluster headache
- Migraine (with and without aura)
- Tension headache (medically known as tension-type headache)
- Trigeminal autonomic cephalalgia (TAC), including cluster headache and paroxysmal hemicrania
Secondary headaches are a symptom of a disease that causes pain in the head. Dr. Alan Mandell notes that roughly 90% of headaches are tension headaches (more on this below).
Migraines may require special care. For more information, see Migraine Relief Tips and Treatment from a Long Term Migraine Sufferer.
Several lifestyle factors may cause headaches, including:
- Alcohol, particularly red wine
- Certain foods, such as processed meats that contain nitrates
- Changes in sleep or lack of sleep
- Poor posture
- Skipped meals
Headache Relief Option #1 – Hydrate
Simple dehydration is a common cause of headaches (and muscle aches). Make sure to drink plenty of non-caffeinated beverages over the course of the day. Skip the soda, especially diet, as no-cal sweeteners are a headache trigger for many. Excess sugar ties up magnesium in the body. Low magnesium is another potential headache trigger, so soda or plain juice may hurt more than they help. Plain water or infused water, water kefir, coconut water and herbal tea are all great options.
Headache Relief Option #2 – Cold or Heat
Ice constricts blood vessels, which may reduce pain and inflammation. Try applying an icepack on your forehead or at the base of the skull at the first sign of a headache. Alternatively, if you can tell that your muscles are very tense, try heat. Place a hot pack or heating pad on tight neck muscles, or soak in a warm bath. I've tried both, depending on the type of headache.
Core Products is a Wisconsin based company that creates a wide variety of fabric based products, including hot and cold packs. I learned about them through one of my closest friends, who is one of their product designers. She gifted me with a hot and cold pack many years ago, and I liked it so much I've purchased several more over the years. These packs have frost free covers and are filled with non-toxic, biodegradable gel. I keep some small ones in the freezer and I use larger ones with heat.
For headache relief, I recommend the 6″x10″ CorPak Soft Comfort Frost-Free Hot/Cold Pack for an ice pack. For heat, go with the larger 6” x 20”Cervical Soft Comfort Hot and Cold Pack. This size is shaped to drape over the shoulders.
Headache Relief Option #3 – Napping
Find a cool, dark, quiet room and take a 10-15 minute nap. This tends to work better for migraines and tension headaches, but can make cluster headaches (those with stabbing pain around the eyes) worse.
Note that too much sleep or a significant disruption in your sleep schedule can trigger headaches. Sometimes I even put a pillow over my head (just leaving an air hole) to block out light and noise. If you have a noisy bedroom with too much light, consider a sleep mask with ear plugs.
Headache Relief Option #4 – Movement
This is a great option for tension headache relief, as physical activity helps to relieve muscle tension. Your muscles want to stay doing whatever they're doing, which can lead to them knotting up and shutting you down. Get up, take a walk, swing your arms and get that blood flowing and those muscles relaxing. Your chiropractor will be happy you did (even though you may visit them less often).
Headache Relief Option #5 – Massage
Massage is a great DIY headache treatment that you can use almost anywhere. The quick video below demonstrates a simple massage technique for tension headache relief.
Rubbing the temples in a circular motion or firmly massaging the neck and shoulders to relieve tension may also be helpful.
Headache Relief Option #6 – Magnesium
Low levels of magnesium in the blood are commonly associated with headaches, especially in women, particularly migraines and headaches related to the menstrual cycle. 400 – 700 mg of magnesium daily is considered safe. Excess magnesium taken orally can put a strain on the kidneys, so don't overdose. Some forms of magnesium absorb better than others, so look for magnesium supplements chelated with glysine or lysine for best absorption, like Doctor's Best High Absorption Magnesium Dietary Supplement. Magnesium citrate oral magnesium is used as a laxative.
Foods high in magnesium include molasses, nuts, spinach, wheat germ, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, seafood, cheese, baked potatoes, broccoli and bananas. You can also add Epsom salts to your bath, or use a spray on magnesium oil. (I highly recommend the book The Magnesium Miracle to learn more about the importance of magnesium in the body.)
Headache Relief Option #7 – Apple Cider Vinegar
Apple cider vinegar comes to the rescue again as the most popular recommended headache treatment on Earth Clinic. Contributors recommend anywhere from a spoonful to a quarter cup of ACV – straight up or mixed with water – however you can get it in.
Headache Relief Option #8 – Cayenne Pepper
#2 at Earth Clinic for home remedies for headaches, this appears to be a remedy for the brave. Headache relief via cayenne pepper is a favorite of people who have cluster headaches. To use cayenne, inhale a very small amount up the nose, place some on the tip of the tongue, or mix it with water and drink. I'm personally afraid of this one, but it works for some.
Headache Relief Option #9 – Herbal Tea
Herbal teas can relax and soothe. Some herbs commonly recommended for headaches and migraines are:
- feverfew (migraines)
- gingko biloba
- cayenne (see above)
- and chamomile
When brewing tea for medicinal use, a longer brewing time is typical (10-15 minutes). During this time, cover your cup with a small plate or lid to trap volatile compounds.
Headache Relief Option #10 – Essential Oils
For headache treatment with essential oils, try any of the following: (Adapted from Modern Essentials.)
Frankincense and propriety blends are also commonly recommended, but frankincense is becoming critically overharvested, so it's not a good first choice where other oils will do.
The simplest and safest way to use essential oils is aromatherapy. Try inhaling a bit from an open bottle, or place 1-3 drops of oil on a tissue or hankie and inhale. I like tucking a hankie into a chest shirt pocket. This keeps the oil in range, but not too close, and keeps my hands free. Also, if you find a particular oil is making your symptoms worse instead of better (everyone is different), a tissue is easily tossed. Whole room treatments take much longer to dissipate.
Originally posted in 2012, updated in 2017.