Acupuncture for Headaches

Acupuncture for headaches and migraines works from mild to severe cases. The world we live in today has a fast-paced, goal driven, and do-it-all attitude which may cause  the development of intense stress, and a lot of it. Migraines affect 39 million men, women, and children in the United States, and 1 billion worldwide. Those numbers show that either we know someone who experiences chronic headaches or migraines, or we struggle with them ourselves.

What are Headaches & Migraines?

Headaches are classified as pain in any region of the head, and can occur on one or both sides, in one particular spot, or radiate across the head from one point to another. They can develop suddenly or over time, and can last from less than an hour to several days. The pain can also vary. A headache type can manifest as a sharp pain, throbbing sensation, or dull ache. Determining the specific about your headaches will help your licensed acupuncturist determine the root cause of the headache as well as the appropriate treatment plan. In western medicine, headaches are usually broken up into two groups classified by their cause; primary and secondary headaches. 

Primary headaches are caused by over-activity or issues with pain-sensitive structures in the head. This group of headache types are not symptoms of an underlying disease, and can often be triggered by lifestyle factors such as alcohol, processed meats, lack of or changes in sleep, skipped meals, poor posture, and stress. Additionally, some people may carry genes that make them more susceptible to develop these headaches. 

Common primary headaches:

  • Migraine

  • Cluster headache

  • Tension headache

  • Migraine with aura

Less common primary headaches:

  • Chronic daily headaches

  • Cough headaches

  • Exercise headaches

  • Sex headaches

Secondary headaches are symptoms of a disease that can activate the pain-sensitive nerves in the head. There are a number of conditions that may cause these types of headaches, and can vary widely in severity.

Potential causes of secondary headaches:

Some types of secondary headaches:

  • Ice cream headaches (brain freeze)

  • Medication overuse headaches

  • Sinus headaches

  • Spinal headaches

  • Thunderclap headaches

  • External compression headaches (from wearing tight or pressure causing headgear)

The organs in our body are regulated by the autonomic nervous system (ANS) which is made up of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Most people in today’s world live in the sympathetic nervous system which is responsible for activating the “fight or flight” response which is helpful for our protection, but also activated in stressful situations. The parasympathetic system counteracts the sympathetic nervous system by activating a homeostasis state causing a response of relaxation. We are not supposed to live in the sympathetic state, but with our “get it done now,” “go, go, go” world, this is the state many Americans find themselves in which can lead to neck and back pain, heaviness behind the eyes, tension headaches, anxiety, irritability, and digestive problems like constipation or bloating.

As we said, headaches and migraines are very prevalent in both the United States and worldwide. However, before we talk about acupuncture treatment or chinese medicine for headaches & migraines, it is important to know what your symptoms are to determine what type of headache you or a loved one may be suffering from. 

Types of headaches:

  • Tension Headaches – this is the most common type of headache. They are recurrent, and can last anywhere from minutes to. They give off a dull pressure, and are mild to moderate in severity often described like a band around the head sometimes spreading into or from the neck. There are episodic tension headaches which occur fewer than 15 days per month, and chronic which occur more than 15 days per month. These headaches often begin in teenage years and affect women more than men. It may be derived from stress or associated with musculoskeletal problems in the neck.

  • Chronic Headaches – this type of headache occurs every day or almost every day, and are usually referred to as chronic daily headaches or rebound headaches. They often resemble tension headaches, but can also sometimes resemble migraines. These types of headaches can stem from overuse of pain medications, and are the most common cause of secondary headaches. These headaches may improve with pain medication, but worsen when the effects wear off. Along with headache, chronic headaches can cause neck pain, restlessness, reduced sleep, and a feeling nasal congestion.

  • Cluster Headaches – this is classified as a primary headache disorder, and is relatively uncommon. It manifests in frequently recurring, brief, and extremely severe headaches. It is usually focused in or around one eye with tearing and redness in the eye. Additionally, the nose is runny or blocked on the affected side, and the eyelid may droop.

  • Migraine – characterized as a primary headache disorder, and are usually one sided, recurrent & often life-long, moderate to severe in intensity, and pulsating or throbbing. It may be associated with nausea and/or vomiting, and can be worsened with activity. It is also usually associated with sensitivity to light or noise. Someone with a migraine may also experience auras. This a neurological symptom lasting anywhere from 5-20 minutes where the person experiences brief flashes of light or changes in their vision. Auras can also include vertigo, imbalance, confusion, and numbness. About 10% of school age children, and 28% of adolescents age 15-19 also experience migraines that often go undiagnosed, and the attacks are usually shorter in duration, and abdominal symptoms are more common.

  • Thunderclap Headaches – these headaches are very dangerous, and reach maximum intensity in less than one minute and last longer than 5 minutes. These are usually secondary to life -threatening conditions like cerebral venous thrombosis, ruptured or unruptured aneurysms, pituitary apoplexy, reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome (RVS), and intracerebral hemorrhage. These types of headaches require immediate medical attention.

No matter which type of headache you have, it is always important to know when to seek medical attention. Knowing the symptoms of each type, and assessing your own symptoms along with it will help determine the next steps as well as providing that information to your licensed acupuncturist

How Acupuncture Works for Headaches & Migraines

Acupuncture for all types of headaches & migraines seeks to restore blood circulation and flow of positive energy throughout the body. When the acupuncture points along the body are stimulated with micro-trauma to the skin, it sends neurotransmitters to the pain receptors which release hormones such as endorphins to trigger a pain relieving response in the body. This process of activating the immune and circulatory systems is what relieves migraines and headaches. Essentially, acupuncture activates the pathways in the brain that are responsible for pain relief. 

Acupuncture helps headaches & migraines by:

  • Supporting the parasympathetic nervous system

  • Maintaining optimal heart rate

  • Maintaining optimal respiratory rate

  • Maintaining optimal blood pressure

  • Relieving muscle tension

  • Altering the electrical activity of the brain after a series of acupuncture sessions

  • Promoting blood flow in the tissues through a mechanism known in acupuncture as the “axon reflex” which may dilate (widen) the small vessels around the needle area.

Acupuncture for headache and migraine prevention is based on managing and reducing stress. Needles are usually placed in the forearms, lower legs, and lower portion of the body in general to increase blood flow to sore and tense muscles. The goal with these points being to reduce tension in the upper back and neck which can often lead to headaches. 

Many people assume that since headaches & migraines affect the head that this is where the acupuncture needles will be placed during treatment. This is not always the case, in fact, during your acupuncture treatment, the hair-thin needles will be placed along your legs, arms, stomach, and maybe even your big toe or pinky! 

Acupuncture increases circulation in the head, and because migraine pain may be correlated with the dilation of blood vessels in the head, head acupuncture points may increase the pain felt during a migraine attack. Experienced acupuncturists will avoid points in the head, neck and upper body for patients experiencing a migraine. 

Acupuncture Points & Traditional Chinese Medicine for Headaches & Migraines

Acupuncture providers are trained to painlessly needle specific points on the body to help you with headaches and migraines.  The consultation will consist of an in depth look at your history, the symptoms surrounding your headache, and other information that will allow your acupuncturist to treat your concern. 

Acupuncture points for headaches:

  • LI8 – Lower Ridge – Xia Lian – located on the forearm

  • SI17 – Celestial Countenance – Tian Rong – located on the side of the neck

  • ST40 – Beautiful Bulge – Fenglong – located on the lower leg

  • UB22 – Triple Burner Shu – San Jiao Shu – located on the back

Acupuncture points for migraines:

  • LI4 – Union Valley – He Gu – located on the hand between the thumb & pointer finger

  • PC6 – Inner Pass – Nei Guan – located on the wrist

  •  ST8 – Head Corner – Touwei – located on the top right of the head (used if not in the migraine attack when being seen)

Your acupuncturist will also likely give you some TCM nutrition advice, and potentially prescribe herbal formulas to help with the prevention and management of your headaches or migraines. Many licensed acupuncturists may also give you specific recipes or teas to use at home depending on your TCM headache type.

Traditional Chinese Medicine headache Types & Tea Recipes:

  • Wind-Cold Headache – Sichuan lovage tea – made up of sichuan lovage, tea leaf, and 2 pieces of green onion stalk. This recipe disperses coldness and promotes the flow of yang qi (vital energy; pronounced chee) and relieves headaches.

  • Wind-Heat Headaches – Hawthorn & honeysuckle tea – made up of hawthorn fruit, honeysuckle flower, and honey. This recipe clears heat, regulates qi, and relieves pain.

  • Liver Yang Headache – Chrysanthemum, lotus leaf, and hawthorn tea – made up of chrysanthemum, dried lotus leaf, and hawthorn fruit. This recipe pacifies the Liver, relieves pain, and promotes qi flow.

  • Turbid Phlegm Headache – Cassia seed & kelp tea – made up of cassia seed and dried kelp. This recipe pacifies the Liver, resolves phlegm & accumulations.

  • Blood Stasis Headache – Lovage, angelica, & hawthorn drink – made up of sichuan lovage, angelica root, fresh hawthorn fruit, and sugar. This recipe activates the blood, resolves stasis, relieves pain, and unblocks the meridian.

  • Qi & Blood Deficient Headache – Mung bean porridge – made up of mung beans, siberian solomonseal rhizome, and brown sugar. This recipe nourishes yin and blood, invigorates the spleen, and replenishes qi.

  • Kidney Deficient Headache – Ginseng and walnut congee – made up of ginseng, walnut, rice, and sugar. This recipe replenishes qi, relieves pain, strengthens yang, and invigorates the Kidney.

It comes as a surprise sometimes to many that diet & nutrition is also discussed at acupuncture sessions. This is because in Chinese medicine, it is key to heal the body from the inside out. Your licensed acupuncturist may suggest something as simple as avoiding caffeine, getting more sleep, avoid alcohol, and avoid any trigger foods as these can exacerbate migraines. 

Headache vs. Migraine

What’s the Difference?

This is something that comes up quite often because these two generalized terms are often associated with the same types of symptoms, but they are in reality very different. 

Questions to ask yourself to determine if you have a headache or migraine:

  • What type of pain is it?

  • Where is the pain located?

  • Are there any additional symptoms with the headache?

You are experiencing a headache if:

  • The pain is mild, dull pressure

  • The location of the pain is felt mainly throughout the forehead and scalp

  • There are no additional symptoms along with the headache

You are experiencing a migraine if:

  • The pain is intense, pulsating or throbbing

  • The location of the pain is felt on one side of the head

  • There are additional symptoms along with the headache such as dizziness, nausea, or seeing flashing spots

Although it can be hard to tell at times, there are differences between the two.  Please consult with your acupuncturist or other healthcare provider if you are experiencing these symptoms.

The Benefits of Acupuncture for Headaches & Migraines

The benefits of acupuncture for the treatment of headaches and migraines are numerous, and various health organizations can get behind these findings.  The World Health Organization, for example, endorses acupuncture as a treatment modality. Acupuncture needles used by licensed acupuncturists are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Additionally, the American Migraine Foundation views acupuncture as a valuable treatment option for individuals suffering from migraines. 

The research on acupuncture for headaches and migraines doesn’t lie either. A study in 2011: Acupuncture in Primary Headache Treatment, a study in 2016: Acupuncture for the Prevention of Episodic Migraines, and an analysis in 2018: Acupuncture for Headache, all show clinical effectiveness of acupuncture treatment for headaches and migraines. 

Acupuncture for headaches & migraines is a valuable treatment option, especially for those who are suffering daily and have found no relief. Call your licensed acupuncturist if your headaches are occurring more often than usual, are more severe than usual, or keep you from your daily activities. If all else has failed, alternative medicine and acupuncture for your headaches may be your answer. 

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