Headache and Migraine

About Headaches

Everyone tends to suffer from headaches at one point or another. Being one of the most common physical complaints, many people tend to either treat it themselves or seek professional help. This is usually a pain located in the head region and could be due to a number of factors. Some causes could include muscle contraction, abscesses, vascular problems, tension, withdrawal from certain medications or injury.

Common headache pain is caused by vasoconstriction (narrowing of blood vessels). This is not always understood quite well. That’s why common medications prescribed for headaches (e.g. beta blockers which dilate blood vessels) could make migraines worse.

More than 90 percent of headaches fall into these main categories:

Chinese Medicine for Headaches and Migraines
  • Tension-type: Headaches due to tension are the most frequent. People can usually feel mild to moderate pain on both sides of the head. The pain can seem as if there is something being wrapped around the head and squeezed tightly. It can be described as tight, stiff or constricting ache.

  • Migraine: Migraines can be life threatening. It could precede strokes, aneurysms, permanent visual loss, severe dental problems, epileptic seizures, coma and even death. It also greatly impacts job productivity, personal and social relationships. These periodic, throbbing headaches can be quite severe and afflict far fewer people than tension-type headaches. Migraines are usually more common for women than men. These types of headaches often cause pain on one side of the head and result in loss of appetite, nausea and even vomiting. Moreover, temporary visual changes could also be experienced.

  • Cervicogenic: Cervicogenic headaches are the most recently diagnosed type of headache. It is a musculoskeletal form of tension-type headache and may also be related to migraines. This could occur due to pain in the neck or spine being transferred to the head. Often, such headaches go undiagnosed because of their recent classification.

  • Cluster headaches: This is more common for men and is characterised by excruciating pain in an eye or a temple. Such a headache could last from 15 minutes to an hour or more. It occurs in waves lasting weeks to months, and may occur once or twice a year.

Headaches can be quite distracting and account for significant amounts of time lost from work. If you are suffering from a headache, your obvious concern is to get some relief in a safe and dependable manner. It’s best to avoid using drugs – even over-the-counter, non-prescription drugs – as they can have serious side effects and dangerous interactions with other medications or supplements that you may be taking. Many also experience Analgesic Rebound Headaches which is the result of taking painkillers daily or almost every other day. The medicine you take to get rid of a headache may give you a headache tomorrow and the days after. This could be due to the gradual build-up of some of the compounds found in relief tablets for headaches nowadays.

Chinese Medical View

Acupuncture has been proved to be an effective treatment for headache through clinical trials*.For headache aetiology, physiology, diagnosis and treatment strategy, Chinese medicine has a very consistent framework. Acupuncture has been used to treat headaches for quite a long time.

According to Chinese Medicine theory, acupuncture can help in treating migraine headaches as well as tension headaches. This includes cluster headaches, post-traumatic headaches, and disease-related headaches that might be due to sinus problems, high blood pressure or sleeping disorders. One of the biggest benefits of acupuncture over Western medicine is that it does virtually no harm. Some medications can have serious side effects and could (in some instances) lead to patients experiencing a rebound headache. Unlike synthetic drugs, acupuncture usually has no side effects. Moreover, the procedures for treating headaches are much less invasive with acupuncture than with surgery.

Headache (migraine), in Chinese medicine, comes under the category of one-sided headache. It’s characterised by recurrent attacks of headache, with or without warning signs or visual and gastrointestinal disturbances. Chinese medicine aims to relieve the pain and also to deal with the root problem. Therefore, headaches are treated differently depending on their causes:

  • Wind: Wind invasion can disturb the harmony of Qi (the body’s essential energy) and blood-causing headaches (e.g., as experienced during the common cold).

  • Excessive Liver Yang energy (i.e. hot energy): Headaches are accompanied by dizziness, bitter taste in mouth, anxiety and short temperedness (e.g. in high blood pressure).

  • Deficiency of Blood and Qi: Slow onset of headaches is accompanied by heaviness of head and eyes, tiredness or exhaustion and pale complexion.

  • Blood stagnation: Headaches can be sharp and often have fixed locations. Patients often complain of loss of memory and concentration as well as palpitations. Some may have a history of head injury.

According to Chinese Medicine theory, acupuncture, Chinese herbs and Chinese massage can be prescribed to treat migraines and headaches. All the causes can be present in migraine and understandably treatment can be very different for each patient. People may vary in their response to treatments. For instance, some could respond better to acupuncture while others may see herbs being more effective for them.

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    Migraines – Chinese Medical View

    Although commonly experienced, migraines can also be related to a person’s genetics. The condition tends to be more common amongst women than men and is more likely to happen during the menstrual periods. It tends to occur more frequently when hormonal changes are taking place in the period. This is usually when the human body is 15-20 years old. The likelihood of hormone-related migraines decreases during pregnancy and after menopause. The main symptoms are pain in one side of the head, nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light.

    Common triggers of migraines include:

    • Stress

    • Anxiety

    • Overwork

    • Insomnia

    • Certain foods or medications and environment (For e.g. sunlight, damp weather or cold temperature)

    Chinese medicine distinguishes between two basic causes of migraines: external and internal. A doctor practising Chinese medicine usually does not focus only on addressing the patient’s migraine. They would also try pinpointing the imbalance (often known as ‘the syndrome’) where the cause of the migraine and other seemingly unrelated symptoms take root. Identifying the syndrome and restoring the balance tends to improve the patient’s overall health. Relief for migraines is usually a natural outcome of the treatment along with other positive side effects.

    According to Chinese medicine, migraines of an external origin occur when Wind-Heat, Wind-Cold or Wind-Damp invade the acupuncture channels located in the head. These are common syndromes, describing the process whereby environmental pathogens penetrate the body impede the movement of blood and Qi (together referred to as lifeblood) to the head. Genetics, improper diet, emotional problems or chronic conditions caused by functional disorders of the liver, spleen or kidneys are some internal causes. For instance, a deficiency in the lifeblood can lead to malnourishment of the sensitive acupuncture channels in the head. This could in turn result in migraine pain.

    Another common syndrome recognised in Chinese medicine as a root cause of migraine is a combination of internal Wind, build-up of phlegm and stagnation in the circulation of lifeblood. Together, this causes blockages in the Shao Yang and Tai Yang acupuncture channels, resulting in pain in the head region. A detailed diagnosis identifies syndrome whereby the migraine has developed and the type of its cause (internal or external). Suitable Chinese herbs and acupuncture points are selected to treat the migraine at its root.

    Chinese Medicine for Migraines related to Hormone Levels

    Chinese medicine combines herbal medicine and syndrome acupuncture to treat hormone-related migraines. This is done by subtly regulating the functional state of the kidneys and the liver – organs which both secrete hormones. According to Chinese medical theory, kidneys control the production of bone marrow and store the body’s essential energy (a matter which is vital for sexual activity and reproductive health). The Yang (hot) energy used by the kidneys to support the body. This is carried throughout one’s body via the bloodstream and is important for the brain’s nourishment. A lack of supply in such energy to the head typically causes migraine pain.

    In the case of kidney Yang deficiency, Chinese medicine is used to tonify the kidneys – particularly in relation to the Yang arm of the organ’s operations. This ensures that the blood is circulating properly throughout the body. Hence, the Yang energy is delivered to the head, brain is nourished and pain is alleviated via improved lifeblood circulation.

    The liver stores the blood (and therefore supports menstruation in women). It also regulates the circulation of essential energy carried by the blood throughout the body. By using suitable Chinese herbs and stimulating the relevant acupuncture points, Chinese medicine can tonify the kidneys, the liver and subtly regulate their production of hormones. This in turn can treat the related migraine at its root cause.

    Chinese Medicine for Migraines related to Stress and Anxiety

    Migraines linked to anxiety, stress and worry are associated with the liver and the heart in Chinese medicine. According to Chinese medical theory, issues such as excessive stress, insomnia or anxiety trigger migraines. This is because they impede the liver’s function of circulating lifeblood to the head and unsettle the heart which is at the foundation of the person’s mental state.

    Stress can cause Fire (a kind of heat) within the liver and upset the balance between the organ’s cooling and warming properties. This  causes the latter (Yang, the opposite of Yin) to restlessly rise up the energy channel which links the liver and the head and cause migraine pain. Insomnia and stress can also cause Fire within the heart. This can have a knock-on effect on the supply of lifeblood to the brain and lead to head pain.

    To alleviate migraine pain caused by stress, anxiety and/or insomnia, Chinese medicine uses a combination of acupuncture and specific herbs to soothe the liver and the heart, clear out the Fire and control the rising Yang energy which can alleviate the related migraine pains. Moreover, this relieves the patient’s stress and improves their sleep. By treating the patient’s liver and heart with acupuncture and herbs, Chinese Medicine can strengthen the body’s ability to cope with pain triggers such as stress and anxiety and hence lower the incidence of migraines.

    Migraines and Food – Treatment in Chinese Medicine

    Since migraines of internal cause are linked to diet in cases where certain foods trigger the symptoms, Chinese Medicine has identified the spleen as a key organ in the diagnosis and apt treatment. In Chinese Medical theory, the Spleen performs a major role in the digestive system as the organ which processes the food and drink intake, assimilating nutrients into the body.

    Hence, Chinese Medicine states that in certain cases of migraines, treatment must include regulating the functional state of the Spleen. This can improve the patient’s ability to digest and absorb the foods which trigger the migraine symptoms.

    So, go ahead and book an appointment with Long Life Health to know more information on how we can help! You can also book online or reach out to our clinic on 03 9375 2928 to book your treatment today

    Clinical trails

    Ahonen E et al. Acupuncture and physiotherapy in the treatment of myogenic headache patients: pain relief and EMG activity. Advances in Pain Research and Therapy, 1983, 5:571-576.

    Loh L et al. Acupuncture versus medical treatment for migraine and muscle tension headaches. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, 1984, 47:333-337.

    Dowson DI et al. The effects of acupuncture versus placebo in the treatment of headache. Pain, 1985, 21:35-42.

    Doerr-Proske H et al. [A muscle and vascular oriented relaxation program for the treatment of chronic migraine patients. A randomized clinical control groups study on the effectiveness of a biobehavioural treatment program]. Zeitschrift für Psychosomatische Medizin und Psychoanalyse, 1985, 31(3):247-266 [in German].

    Vincent CA. A controlled trial of the treatment of migraine by acupuncture. Clinical Journal of Pain, 1989, 5:305-312.

    Tavola T et al. Traditional Chinese acupuncture in the treatment of tension-type headache: a controlled study. Pain, 1992, 48:325-329.

    Kubiena G et al. Akupunktur bei Migräne. [Acupuncture treatment of migraine.] Deutsche Zeitschrift für Akunpunktur, 1992, 35(6):140-148 [in German].

    Xu Z et al. [Treatment of migraine by qi-manipulating acupuncture.] Shanghai Journal of Acupuncture and Moxibustion, 1993, 12(3):97-100 [in Chinese].

    Weinschütz T et al. Zur neuroregulativen Wirkung der Akupunktur bei Kopfschmerzpatienten. [Neuroregulatory action of acupuncture in headache patients.] Deutsche Zeitschrift für Akunpunktur, 1994, 37(5):106-117 [in German].

    Chen XS et al. [Observation of penetrating acupuncture treatment of migraine in 45 cases.] Shanxi Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine, 1997, 13(6):32-33 [in Chinese].

    Liu AS et al. [“Three Scalp Needles” in the treatment of migraine.] New Tradiitional Chinese Medicine, 1997, 29(4) 25-26 [in Chinese].