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Changing Diet May Ease Chronic Headache Pain

Changing Diet May Ease Chronic Headache Pain: Main Image
High intake of omega-3 with low intake of omega-6 fatty acids lead to less pain and fewer headaches
Chronic headaches can be debilitating and frustrating. A study in the journal Pain found that increasing dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids and reducing omega-6 fatty acids brought relief from pain to people with chronic headaches.

The right balance of fatty acids wins

In this study, 67 people with chronic daily headaches were randomly assigned to a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and low in omega-6 fatty acids LA (linoleic acid), or to a diet low in omega-6 fatty acids, for 12 weeks. Headache symptoms were assessed through questionnaires, and participants also kept a diary, recording the frequency and severity of their headaches as well as the medications they used.

Results showed:

  • Compared with the low-omega-6-fatty-acids group, headache symptoms improved significantly in the high-omega-3 and low-omega-6 fatty-acids groups leading to less pain, fewer headaches, and headaches of shorter duration.
  • At 12 weeks, compared with the start of the study, medication use decreased significantly among participants in the high-omega-3 and low-omega-6-fatty-acid groups (37% reduction in pain reliever use and 43% reduction in other medication use such as sleep aids or muscle relaxants).

The study authors comment "Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids regulate multiple pain-related biochemical pathways," concluding, "dietary interventions with targeted alterations in omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids may be able to reduce pain." Further research is needed to understand the role of dietary fatty acids in the treatment of headaches.

Complementary therapies can bring relief

Medications alone are often not enough to heal the pain and frequency of chronic headaches. Fortunately, a number of complementary therapies that, when used along with conventional approaches, have been shown to help ease this type of headache, including:

  • Nutritional options
  • Massage
  • Mind-body therapies such as biofeedback and relaxation exercises, and
  • Stress-management training

Talk with a doctor. Headaches can be a sign of serious underlying illness, so it is important to see a doctor for a proper diagnosis and appropriate treatment. Talk with a knowledgeable healthcare professional about complementary therapies that may help ease the pain of chronic headaches.

(Pain 2013;154: 2441-51

Jane Hart, MD, board-certified in internal medicine, serves in a variety of professional roles including consultant, journalist, and educator. Dr. Hart, a Clinical Instructor at Case Medical School in Cleveland, Ohio, writes extensively about health and wellness and a variety of other topics for nationally recognized organizations, websites, and print publications. Sought out for her expertise in the areas of integrative and preventive medicine, she is frequently quoted by national and local media. Dr. Hart is a professional lecturer for healthcare professionals, consumers, and youth and is a regular corporate speaker.
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