Headache Remedies That Work?

Some of you know that I spent 2.5 years quantifying data to eliminate my late night headaches that wake me up. In the end, I was unsuccessful on finding a single cause, although I learned caffeine plays a role. During that entire experiment, I solely focused on preventing the headache, not on eliminating the pain once it arrived. The reason is I have very poor luck with painkillers.

Before I ask for ideas on how you would address the pain, I’m going to describe the pain and what I’ve tried already.


Below is my wonderful drawing. The red areas are where my headache pain comes from. More info:

  • My headaches are around and behind the eyes. They often feel sinus in nature, but there is never signs of a sinus infection.
  • The pain is equal on both sides.
  • I am not light or sound sensitive.
  • Lying down does not help and often makes the pain worse.
  • I sometimes get a tight neck upon waking, but most of these headaches do not have a tight neck.

What I’ve tried:

  • Aspirin, Tylenol, Aleve, Ibuprofen and numerous anti-histamine sinus medications. Nothing works.
  • Tiger Balm. Fine for muscles, does nothing for headaches.
  • Sitting upright reduces pain intensity during the early stages. This sucks, because the pain wakes me up and I have to get up.
  • Eating or not eating doesn’t seem to make a difference.
  • Coffee reduces pain sometimes. It could also be a combination of time and sitting upright that helps.
  • L-Tyrosine. Nada.
  • L-Glutamine. Nada.
  • Cold and Warm compresses. Comforting and distracting, but doesn’t reduce pain duration. I usually don’t bother with them.
  • Neti Pot. Makes no dent in pain and sometimes amplifies headache.

My headaches are getting worse again. More frequent and longer duration. My post quitting Quantified Self honeymoon appears to be over. I know caffeine is a player, but I am not in position to reduce it too much at this time. But this post isn’t about prevention. Been there done that. I’m interested in ideas that will knock the pain out quickly. So far nothing has worked for me. If you can solve this riddle, I’d be very grateful.


Add yours

  1. MAS,
    No suggestions.
    But in general, it’s an interesting topic: Don’t focus on avoiding the event, just on minimizing the damage.
    Also, strangely, that drawing does look a bit like you.
    Good luck.

  2. I find that half a teaspoon of sea or Himalayan salt in 8 oz of water in the morning prevents me from getting the headaches I used to get during the day.

    Not sure how that would work on night headaches though.

    Also live in the desert where humidity can be single digits. I think mine are mostly sinus or hydration related.

  3. Pot Brownie or a nice toke might work, if you’re into that. But, your afternoon might get a little lazy 🙂 You could take a nice hike to your favorite Ice Cream place though…kill two birds with one stone 😉

  4. I second D fresh:

    Kill a lot ice cream while on a high! 🙂 Btw, this is a great mass gaining protocol because you can put away so much more food when high.

  5. Are you doing Neti properly (correct temperature and salinity)? I’ve found that if I’m not spot on it can make things worse, but when it’s rightist’s helpful. Try following Neti with Nasya Oil from Banyan Botanicals, though I just use straight warmed EVOO. Have you tried Inversions (Asanas)?

  6. An excellent Vietnam vet era paramedic who taught us first aid here in Seattle tells us fighter pilots in Vietnam would get badly hungover, then just suck on their oxygen masks the next day and the headache would disappear. He says he uses that method to eliminate migraines as well. I always wanted a second verification of this.

  7. @MAS:

    To me this sounds like food allergies. Could you give a post or comment with a daily food diary?

  8. @Jim – Glad you liked the drawing.

    @D Fresh and Stephan – I think I would seek out a doctor before taking pot. It isn’t my thing. Ice cream doesn’t cure or reduce my headaches either.

    @tim – I spent months trying every variation of the Neti Pot. Tracked the data closely and came to the conclusion it made no difference. Had my headache actually been associated with a true sinus infection, I am certain it would have helped.

    @Jeff – I love that idea. Amazon does sell canned oxygen. I will try this!

    @Muts – 2.5 years of testing every elimination possible, some multiple times and the only food allergy I could isolate was wheat/gluten and alcohol. Caffeine also plays a role. I have no data to show anything else is a trigger. But this post is not about causes, it is about cures.

  9. @Scott – I like your idea. It could work as both a remedy and prevention. I’m a big fan of salt. In fact, I think my salt consumption was highest when my headaches were at their lowest.

    @Norlee – I am thinking any mouth guard could do the same task?

  10. Hi MAS, I know you’ve tried it before, but I’d suggest going to a well respected Chinese doctor (someone experienced and trained in China) and get acupuncture again. There will likely only be a handful of people at this level in your city so don’t expect finding them to be trivial. Make sure you get a good recommendation. In my experience there’s a big difference between a top notch Chinese doctor (who may also prescribe herbs) and a western alternative therapies acupuncturist. That said, You might find Chinese medicine a bit inscrutable — even if you get a cure you might not ever know what the cause was (in western terms).

  11. Casey Leggett

    Dec 16, 2013 — 7:10 pm

    Assuming that list of things you have tried is exhaustive, I would personally suggest you look in to taking 100-200mg of ubiquinol (reduced CoQ10) daily and see if that helps. It seems to have helped some people overcome migraine issues, and the physiological underpinning seems sensible in that globally improving the efficiency and reliability of mitochondrial metabolism seems about as close to a panacea as can be theorized. I know you have read a fair amount of Ray Peat’s work so this concept likely isn’t alien to you. Do your own research of course, but it’s at least worth looking into. The brand I have used with obvious improvements in exercise capacity, skin quality, and general energy levels (no headache problems personally, so I can’t offer anything on that front) is made by Jarrow Formulas.

  12. @Ross B – For this post I was looking for a cure to the pain. Since the headaches are unpredictable and always very early in the day (ex; 4 AM), having any medical professional on stand by is not feasible. With this said, I consider acupuncture a preventive step. One that has failed me. Both of the places I went to were highly recommended. Both were a waste of money and ineffective. One was honest enough to tell me that my headaches likely could not be cured via acupuncture.

    @Casey – I’ve spent several hundred dollars so many supplements. None worked. The one you recommended is $40. I’ll consider it, but I’m highly skeptical.

  13. I suggest as the last resort an acupressure self massage (google it) or going to a good acupuncturist.

  14. @Galine – I experimented with Trigger Point Therapy and acupressure. It felt good, but didn’t shorten the duration of the headaches. As soon as I stopped, the pain would always pick up where it left off.

  15. This will sound strange, but it’s free. Have you considered using the pain as a focus for meditation? As a child I had debilitating migraines and needed medication to handle the pain. As I grew older and learned that the headaches wouldn’t kill me, I slowly stopped fearing the pain and was able to relax enough to experience it without judging or fear. Eventually I was able to sometimes (not always) relax myself out of the pain by focusing on the experience of the sensation of pain in my mind – that’s what it is, a sensation – rather than fighting the pain or seeking to get rid of it. I rarely get headaches anymore now. Back pain can have a psychological root, perhaps your headaches do too?

  16. it certainly doesn’t have to be a NTI appliance. being in the dental lab industry I have tried them all and that sort of design seems to be the most comfortable and effective but you could probably modify an over-the-counter appliance and get similar results. I can give you the basic design principles if you are interested in giving it a try.
    btw… I’m a huge fan of the blog!

  17. I’d suggest Reiki, but it might not be your sort of thing. I like the oxygen and meditation suggestions, and oxygen fits with that book (can’t remember author/title) about psychogenic back pain.

  18. @Norlee – I have a dental appliance already that I stopped using. I do recall it had a minor prevention role.

    @Anemone – Having any medical professional on hand at 4 AM is not practical. If it were practical, I’d choose massage every time. I did one session with a Reiki professional a year ago, only because it was free and I was curious. Complete garbage.

  19. I would second Geoff’s suggestion.
    Mindfulness meditation – probably 10 minutes each session, twice per day:

    New book: Mindfulness for Health: http://franticworld.com/

  20. Pain is a stressor – it affects quality of sleep and waking time. I have been re-reading Transdermal Magnesium Therapy by Mark Sircus. Apparently digesting magnesium doesn’t mean we get enough of it where we need it and probably only a small proportion of it survives ingestion. The skin and muscles in our body are highly effective at absorbing where we need it most. In the e-book there is mention of magnesium oil (magnesium chloride) sprayed on hands and rubbed into the area just below eyebrows and being very careful not to get into eyes, I would probably also use coconut oil or some balm oil to prevent any drying out of skin. This magnesium application is meant to ease any Migraine pain. Can also apply to jaw, below ears – my own experience at the moment with transdermal magnesium is I am still chronically deficient. I have had a flare up of fibromyalgia and this is the one thing that brings relief if done consistently so far highly effective – I apply the magnesium oil after shower in the am and before bed. It induces deep restorative sleep. It can be sprayed on or near any area of pain, once applied the relief is soon felt. I would spray onto the back of your neck or any area of your shoulders, anything that may be holding tension because of computer work
    or strain. Magnesium chloride is amazing stuff. Magnesium Sulphate (epsom salts) in bath before bed, is very relaxing and the sulphate form is also needed along with the magnesium chloride. Magnesium oil can also be sprayed on gums and on teeth. It is a strange taste but worth experimenting with. I never knew that we need the magnesium chloride through our skin more than we do from any oral supplement. I recommend his book.

  21. 400mg ibuprofen + 500mg paracetamol + a double espresso does the trick for me.

    I add codeine and doxylamine if drowsiness isn’t an issue.

  22. Michael, have you had a sleep study done? You have just very clearly and accurately described a sleep apnea headache.

    Being diagnosed with sleep apnea and starting to use a CPAP has been transformative for me. I have now used it for almost 4 years. CPAP machines and masks have come a long ways. They are very quiet and the masks are comfortable.

    Don’t fear it. Go and get checked!! Harborview, in Seattle, has a great sleep study clinic. I think it is the clinic for the whole UW system.

  23. @All – Thanks for the ideas. I’m going to close the comments on this post.

    1- I ordered some canned oxygen, which I’ll be testing.
    2- I ordered magnesium oil
    3- I’m going to increase salt before ned and upon waking.
    4- Dental appliance/ mouth guard
    5- meditation

    Hopefully one of these options will work. I don’t want to go down the pot/magic mushroom/smart drug path.

  24. I’ve been on a similar journey for he last 4 years trying to resolve chronic tension headaches (with stiff neck, muscle cramping and brain fog). One by one, I’ve worked to rule out one cause after another. I’ve kept a detailed food diary and worked hard trying to spot patterns or potential triggers.

    I first tried to rule out each of the most common allergic foods (milk, eggs, fish, peanuts, etc.)

    I used the FAILSAFE protocol to rule out additives, salicylates, sulfites, msg, etc.

    For each hypothesis, I did an elimination followed by a challenge. For some tests, I even repeated it because I subsequently questioned whether or not I did it correctly the first time.

    About 4 months ago I did the $99 23andme genetic test and discovered I was double-mutated on the MTHFR 1298 gene. Hopeful that perhaps that was the cause of my problems, I took lots of methyl B12 and l-methyl-folate. After 3 months of that, I’m sure my levels are restored, but sadly, that wasn’t the cause. I put all web clippings from my MTHFR research in this public evernote folder:
    Here’s my notes on B12:

    I recently saw a functional medicine doc. She first wanted me to rule out low-stomach acid by swallowing the capsule of acid with a meal. If you feel heart burn, you have plenty of stomach acid.

    She then wanted me to do food sensitivity testing. She didn’t do a lot in her practice, but suggested a test called ALCAT.

    I did some research on that test and found it had terrible split-sample reliability (e.g. take 2 blood samples from the same person at the same time, and you get different answers). Here’s a link to a video which compared split-sample reliability between ALCAT and LEAP MRT:
    (video removed)

    After seeing that, I decided to go for the leap mrt test.

    I just got my results:

    The red arrows indicate foods which were on my short list of reactive foods based on my 3.5 years of food diary:

    The most interesting result is tyramine which I knew to avoid based on my 20 year history of migraines.

    Foods high in tyramine overlap closely with high histamine foods (foods that make me have sneezing fits).
    Because histamine can cause all of the symptoms I experience, I was focused on that for quite a while. I put all my web clippings from my histamine and tyramine research in these public evernote folders:

    Out of the blue a few weeks ago, I developed severe joint/knee pain so I decided to eliminate foods containing the toxin Solanine (in nightshades: potato, tomato, peppers).

    It was only after seeing this 3 minute video preview of this book about nightshades that I learned that solanine is not water soluble and accumulates in your body. You can only eliminate about 1%-2% per day, so it might take 50-100 days for all of it to get out of your system.
    Link to video preview:

    It’s too soon to tell if the nightshade thing will be relevant. Here’s my notes on nightshades: https://www.evernote.com/pub/pcguys/nightshades

    Historically, I don’t do well with pizza (especially if I eat it several days in a row. However, until recently, I never figured out what about pizza was the problem: was it the cheese (milk protein, or maybe tyramine), sauce (nightshade), wheat, yeast, etc. A few days I bought an 8oz block of mozzarella cheese and ate it over 1.5 days. The reason I got it in block form is that shredded cheese often contains potato starch to keep the shreds from sticking together). I had the identical bad reaction I’ve had before: muscle knot in the center of my back and sneezing fits. (Both could be from tyramine & histamine in the cheese). At least I’m getting closer to narrowing things down.

    Since I have sneezing fits when eating high histamine foods, and a history of migraines, and since migraine folk are supposed to avoid tyramine, and because my LEAP MRT test flagged tyramine as the single most reactive item, I’m going to re-dedicate myself to a low histamine/low tyramine diet and see how I do.

    Had I known about leap mrt when I first started this 3.5 year journey, I would have had the test, then used the results as the basis to do eliminations & challenges (instead of taking shots in the dark).

    Thanks for reading this, and for any thoughts it might provoke.

    BTW, here are other pages on this site that I found interesting (because it detailed MAS journey which is similar to mine):





    In closing, thank you MAS for a really interesting site. Being a geeky IT guy who is into Paleo, it turns out I am interested in many of the same things that you are.


    PS: whoever suggested you getting a sleep study because your headaches occur at night made a great point!

  25. @Mike – Thanks for the detailed post. Lots to review. Do you have any thoughts on caffeine?

  26. Michael, I just wanted to share this in case it’s relevant: salicylates can cause headaches. I was taking a salicylate based prescription (pentasa) for crohns for 20 years. During that time, I had wicked migraines (24/year). 4 years ago when I stopped taking it, migraines dropped to 2/year. I haven’t have 1 in 11 months.

    After going back through the last 2 years of my food diary, I began to spot a pattern with bad reactions to foods high on the salicylate list. Here’s a the high/medium/low salicylate foods by food type: http://salicylatesensitivity.com/about/food-guide/

    It’s still a bit premature to declare victory for me, but I did want to share as I progress on my journey to eradicate chronic tension headaches & muscle cramps/joint pain. (BTW, the joint pain was a recent development which appears to be correlated to sweet potato and coconut oil (both high in salicylates.

    Best of luck!


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