Treating headache and migraine


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In Chinese medicine there are many different types of headache. In your initial consultation, I would begin by asking you about the location of your headache (front, side, back, behind the eyes, etc) and the quality of the pain (dull ache, sharp pain; and how the pain develops and progresses—does it start dull and gradually get stronger—and so on), and I might ask if there are other features associated with it, such as visual disturbances, or, if you’re a woman, whether it’s usually linked to a certain part of your menstrual cycle.

All these things, together with the information I’ve been able to obtain from you about your general health, will begin to build up a picture of what the usual causes of your headache are.

What causes a migraine?

For example, if your symptoms are so severe that they’d usually be called a migraine (such as visual disturbances, sensitivity to light, intense pain on the temples or behind the eyes, or through your whole head), this condition would usually be caused by long-term “stagnated liver function”. This state in the liver would be reflected in the tissue at various locations on the gallbladder meridian on your head and neck, and also reflected in the tissue associated with your eyes (since the eyes are closely associated with the liver). In all these locations, strong pain may be experienced, and even visual disturbances.

Stagnated liver function is usually caused by stress. However, in some sensitive people, climatic conditions, such as a very windy day, could also similarly aggravate the liver and bring on a migraine. With some women, sections of their menstrual cycle, in particular the pre-menstrual phase, can also cause stagnated liver function and possibly bring on a migraine.

However, even though the liver is responsible for producing the immediate symptoms, the ultimate underlying cause may well lie elsewhere.

For example, some people with this pattern of headache may also have “poor kidney function”. This may have developed in adulthood (usually due to driving yourself too hard for too long, and becoming used to running on adrenaline; note that in Chinese medicine, when the kidneys are mentioned, this also includes the adrenal glands). Or some people are born with poor kidney function, in which case, I would expect such patients to have suffered hay fever, other allergies, asthma, or hearing difficulties as a child, and perhaps to still be suffering such things in adulthood. The kidneys (and adrenal glands) help to regulate the body's use of energy, and the liver is also responsible for regulating the flow of energy and resources in our body, and this may explain why poor kidney function being present, can impede the liver's ability to regulate this energy, and hence cause the liver function to stagnate; or for the stagnation to become more pronounced than it would otherwise be.

In this case, my treatment would involve strengthening your kidney function, and clearing the stagnation from your liver function. This would tend to have a de-stressing and calming effect on you in general. And I may also offer advice on lifestyle factors that can also help in both these areas.

Alleviating the immediate symptoms

As regards alleviating the immediate symptoms, there are several acupuncture points on the gallbladder meridian that are very effective at clearing these symptoms from your head. Note that the gallbladder meridian, after zigzagging over both sides of the head, then travels down your neck and outwards across your shoulders, which is why tension in your neck and shoulders is also often associated with this type of headache.

Often, with many types of headache, the patient will begin to feel relief from the headache during the acupuncture session; sometimes the headache may clear completely, and at other times it may begin to ease, and then fade gradually after the session.

Other types of headache

Of course, there are many other types of headache, and a range of possible causes with each. But my approach in making my initial diagnosis would be very similar to the above.

Chinese acupuncture is usually very effective in treating migraines and other headaches, and the benefits are usually noticed within the first few treatments.

How many treatments are needed?

As to how often treatment might be needed, this very much depends on each patient. After the initial course of treatments, some would need very little further treatment to remain symptom free (or thereabouts), but if you have a particularly stressful life and find it hard to make changes to your lifestyle (particularly in some mental aspects), you may find that regular maintenance treatments are the only way to keep your health at a reasonable standard, and hence your headaches and other symptoms greatly reduced. With patients who have had poor kidney function from childhood, it would be particularly important for them to learn to adjust their lifestyle to match their limited stamina. And as to the length between regular maintenance treatments, that varies with each person, depending on the level of your general health and the stress in your life. With some people, treatments might only be needed once every four or six weeks, or less; while with others, particularly where poor kidney function is present and is perhaps combined with particularly challenging circumstances in their life, the maintenance treatments may need to be as often as every two weeks, until the circumstances improve.

If you suffer from regular headaches or migraines, I would certainly recommend you coming along for a course of treatments. You'll find my contact details here.

Testimonials from patients I’ve treated

On my testimonials page, you’ll find some comments from some of the patients I’ve treated. There are several relating to headaches and migraines.

Further resources

My recent book, Acupuncture Explained, which is aimed at the general reader, provides much greater detail, including descriptions of the mental factors that cause stagnated liver function; and advice on approaches that could be used to reduce such stresses.

The following study is a research project I carried out during my final year at the Southwest College of Oriental Medicine. The study was largely concerning the method used to select the acupoints used in the treatment of migraine, and it gave me insights into the acupuncture treatment of headache and migraine. The study assumes a practising knowledge of acupuncture and was intended to be of interest mainly to acupuncture practitioners. However, it quotes detailed results from a number of headache trials and so also contains information that some patients may find of interest:

In the acupuncture treatment of headache, is differentiation necessary? (pdf format)

FK, March 2013 (updated December 2018)