Maybe you suffer from migraines – vicious sick headaches that send you to bed for the day; or severe tension headaches – a gripping pounding pain round your head that can last all day; or dull daily headaches- spoilers that wear you down and make life grey and tiresome. The scientific evidence for the benefits of acupuncture for migraine and tension headache is so strong that the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has taken the unusual step of recommending acupuncture for prevention.
Each of these types of headache, and all the other types that you may experience, have a different Chinese medicine explanation. Once I have identified the underlying cause I use acupuncture not only to treat the headache but also to help you understand the cause and what part you can play in preventing future headaches. Most people are keen to cut down the painkillers as soon as they are able to, and this in itself may bring health benefits. Tablets that are prescribed to take at the start of a migraine attack can be very effective, and you can still take these if required, but I would expect acupuncture treatment to greatly reduce your need for them.
In Chinese medicine, migraine headache, often accompanied by vomiting and eye symptoms, is usually due to a sudden rush of Yang energy up to the head. This is called ‘Liver Yang Rising’ and it is due to the Yin and Yang aspects of Qi getting out of balance. An underlying lack of Yin makes the Yang unstable and then stress, usually a strong or repressed emotion, agitates the Qi further and sets off a sudden rise of Yang. In women, Yang rises particularly easily just before a period. Another pattern is that a heavy week of work depletes the Yin further and Yang rises once the body relaxes – those weekend migraines for example. Migraine is more likely in certain constitutions than others- in Five Element terms a Wood constitution links to the liver, which is the seat of this particular Yin-Yang imbalance. Do note that this doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with your liver in everyday or Western medicine terms. The Chinese medicine liver is different – it is closely associated with the eyes (hence the eye symptoms) and the liver channel runs up through the stomach and throat to the head (hence the vomiting). It can also get out of balance in other ways that cause a variety of other type of headaches. I use acupuncture to strengthen your Qi, especially the liver Yin, keep the Qi flowing freely and calm the emotions to help you deal with any stress. If you are interested in playing your own part in the treatment I can advise you about diet and we can try and find ways for you to make small adjustments to your life to bring it into a better balance.
Not all severe or persistent headaches are due to problems in the liver meridian. Another common complaint is a think, heavy, muzzy headache that makes it difficult to concentrate, especially in the morning. This may be due to the body accumulating what Chinese medicine calls ‘Damp’, which means that your Qi is not bright clear energy circulating up to the head, but is Qi that is thicker and moves more slowly and downwards. There are many different causes of Damp – I have written about it in some other of my blogs- and it is usually accompanied by general tiredness. Acupuncture can help to clear the Damp and treat the underlying weakness or imbalance, but the headaches may be slower to clear than migraines.
Maybe your headache is more of a dull empty kind of pain that is on the top or front of your head and gets worse as the day goes on, especially if you are very busy. This type of pain is due to an underlying weakness of blood or Qi. In women who have periods, the regular loss of blood makes blood deficiency quite common and the headache is often worse after a period. Pregnancy and childbirth, and/or sustained periods of overwork, make this worse and overwork may also weaken your kidney Qi…. said to give a feeling like an ‘empty head’. Acupuncture, a good diet and finding some time to rest will not only relieve your headache but also give you back some zest and enthusiasm for life.
People with headaches are rewarding to treat. I start with wanting to know everything about you (!), then I examine your pulses and look at your tongue, and then solve the puzzle of why you are having a headache. That usually leads to very effective acupuncture treatment and greatly improved well-being.