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High-tech headache relief

5 minute read
Person with a headache

Medication isn’t your only option when you’ve got a headache. You can also ease the pain with these non-drug tools that really work.

Nancy Fitzgerald

By Nancy Fitzgerald

Feel a headache coming on? If misery loves company, you’re in luck. Severe headaches account for 4 million emergency room visits a year in the US — and almost as many trips to the doctor’s office. And if you’re a woman, you’re about twice as likely as a man to suffer from headaches. That’s per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Garden-variety headaches are bad enough. But a migraine headache can be way worse. A migraine attack lasts anywhere from 4 to 72 hours and comes with pulsating pain on one side of the head that can be severe. It’s often accompanied by nausea and vomiting, says the American Headache Society. And it can make you feel super sensitive to light and sound.

But whatever kind of headaches you get, you don’t have to grin and bear it. Medications are a frontline therapy. But there are also some cool high-tech tools that can relieve pain without medication. Read on to learn more.

Treatment basics

There are many effective medications that can ease headache pain. These include over-the-counter (OTC) options such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen, and others you need a prescription for. Some medications for severe headaches can help prevent headaches from happening.

But there can be side effects, including stomach discomfort and diarrhea. And research shows that about 80% of those with migraines experience medication overuse headaches. These are otherwise known as rebound headaches.

“Headaches can be incredibly debilitating,” says Dawn Buse, PhD. She’s a clinical professor of neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. There are devices that are effective at reducing the pain, helping you avoid the nausea and light sensitivity, she says. They can even help you avoid the attacks altogether.

You can buy over-the-counter pain relievers at the Optum Store — all from the comfort of home.

Tech devices for head pain

Here’s a look at some of the most effective non-medication devices for headache pain.

Neuromodulation devices. These devices, which you can use at home, use electrical currents from magnets to change the activity of your nerve pathways. Several of these have FDA clearance, says Buse. (Caution: Do not use these devices if you have any electronic devices in your body, such as a pacemaker.) Talk to your provider to find out if one of these might be right for you.

  • Cefaly. This device stimulates your supraorbital nerve, which runs up along the side of your head to your forehead and over your eyes. “Think Princess Leia headband,” Buse says. You put it on for 20 minutes every day to prevent an attack, and for an acute attack, you wear it for up to an hour to treat the pain. In a 2019 study, patients using the Cefaly saw the frequency of their headaches go down by more than 3 days per month.

  • Relivion. This device treats the trigeminal nerve, which sends sensations of pain from your face to your brain. It also treats the occipital nerve, located in the back of your head. In clinical trials, people who used this device experienced headache pain relief. You wear it on your forehead, and it also has an app that can transmit data to your smartphone.

  • GammaCore. This one works by gently stimulating your vagus nerve, which runs from your brain to your abdomen. It can keep an attack from happening and help to stop the pain once an attack has started. “For prevention, you hold it at the side of your neck for 2 minutes, 3 times a day,” Buse explains.

  • Nerivio. This is a band that you wrap around your upper arm that stimulates nerves that can cause a migraine attack. You can even control the strength of the electrical pulse through an app on your smartphone. In a study that followed more than 23,000 Nerivio treatments, researchers found that 50% of patients experienced some pain relief — and nearly 23% saw their pain disappear completely.

Biofeedback. This is a technique you can use to help control some of your body’s functions, such as heart rate and even response to pain. With training, you can do thermal biofeedback at home to help relieve headache pain.

You’ll do a simple relaxation exercise, then measure the temperature of your hand with a thermistor. This is an inexpensive device that attaches to your index finger. It measures changes in the size of your small vessels, which supply blood to your skin. When the skin on your hands is warmer, your blood flows away from your head, helping relieve pain.

Light and vibration therapy. You can shed some light on headache pain with green light therapy. In a 2021 study, people dealing with migraines were given green LED light strips to use in a darkened room for about an hour a day. After 10 weeks, 86% of those with occasional attacks saw their monthly headache days cut in half. And 63% of chronic migraine sufferers saw similar results. “Certain kinds of light can be soothing and comforting for people who are photosensitive,” says Buse.

And vibration therapy — otherwise known as kinetic oscillation stimulation (KOS) — has been shown to significantly reduce both the pain and the frequency of migraine headaches. Vibration devices are often sold as headbands or masks.

(FYI: You can buy LED light masks, headache bands and other pain-relief products at the Optum Store.)

Other ways to relieve head pain without medication

There are some other therapies you can try that may ease a headache without popping a pill. These include massage therapy, cognitive behavior therapy (a type of talk therapy), acupuncture and massage, per the Mayo Clinic. Guided meditation or doing a calming activity such as gardening or knitting may also help.

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Additional sources

Migraine basics: The Journal of Head and Face Pain (2021). "The American Headache Society Consensus Statement: Update on integrating new migraine treatments into clinical practice"
Women versus men: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2020). "QuickStats: Percentage* of adults who had a severe headache or migraine in the past 3 months, by sex and age group — National Health Interview Survey, United States, 2018"
Rebound headaches: StatPearls (2022). "Medication-overuse headache" 
Cefaly study: Cephalalgia Reports (2019). "Efficacy and safety of external trigeminal neurostimulation in the prevention of chronic migraine: An open-label trial"
LED study: Cephalalgia Reports (2020). "Evaluation of green light exposure on headache frequency and quality of life in migraine patients: A preliminary one-way cross-over clinical trial"
Vibration therapy study: The Journal of Head and Face Pain (2014). "Kinetic Oscillation Stimulation as Treatment of Acute Migraine: A Randomized, Controlled Pilot Study"
Other therapies: Mayo Clinic (2019). "Headaches: Treatment depends on your diagnosis and symptoms"