Headache is one of the most common medical complaints. There’s a few different types of headaches, and a whole bunch of common and not-so common causes. I’d be prepared to bet that everybody reading this has experienced one themselves, so if there’s a tight band of iron being slowly tightened around your temples while evil beings use your skull for xylophone practise, let’s talk about acupuncture for headache.
Headaches are – wait for it – when your head hurts. The pain can be dull, sharp, throbbing, tight, fixed, radiating. They can come on suddenly and last an hour or two; or come on slow and hang around for days.
Headaches are usually divided into two main categories – primary or secondary. Primary headaches are when the pain is caused by problems with structures in the head (like the blood vessels, nerves and muscles) and include two that you might have heard about – migraines and tension headaches.
Secondary headaches are when the pain is a symptom of some other underlying cause. There are many underlying causes, ranging from non-threatening (remember that last gin and tonic you had last night?) to serious (like bleeding in the brain or tumours).
Headaches that really hang around, happen more frequently, or are getting worse could be serious (especially accompanied by symptoms like nosebleeds, fever and stiff neck). Go see the doctor if that’s happening to you.
Common treatments for headache are pain relief medications (like paracetamol and aspirin), prescription medications (like beta blockers), or avoiding triggers (like how about you lay off the booze?).
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) there’s quite a few possible diagnoses. The first distinction we’d look at would be if we consider it internal or external.
External headaches come from pathogens originating outside the body – usually Wind, Wind-Cold, or Wind-Heat. These all fall broadly into what you would think of as being cold and flu-type cases. The headache comes with fever and chills, sweating, aching muscles; we’ve all been there. No fun.
Internal headaches come from imbalances of internal energies or substances. Some of these include:
Liver Qi Stasis: The pain is probably one sided, dull, comes and goes, gets worse for stress. This is the kind of headache you get when you’re under the pump at work.
Liver Yang Rising/Fire Flaming Upward: I’ve put these two together because they’re pretty similar in ways. They occur when your Yin (Think cooling, descending, moistening type stuff) isn’t equal to your Yang (Think warming, rising, drying type stuff) and so the Yang isn’t anchored properly and flares upward to the head. These ones tend to be more painful and pressing, and accompanied by things like dizziness or vertigo. These two patterns are your classic migraine headaches.
Blood Stasis: Blood stasis can occur anywhere in your body, and the main symptom is a fixed stabbing pain that continues for a long time. If this happens in your head it is a bad sign and you should seek medical attention.
Internal Wind: Traditionally this might come from Phlegm obstructing the channels or a few other things. I’m only mentioning this because the main Wind symptom is convulsions. If you have a headache and convulsions, don’t come and see me. Go to hospital.
There’s a few different acupuncture points that might be used for headache. Firstly, there might be some local points – points that are close to the sight of the pain:
Governor Vessel 20: Right at the top of your head.
Gall Bladder 12 & 20: At the back of your neck just at the base of your skull.
Yin Tang: Right on your eyebrow between your eyes.
Tai Yang: On your temple.
Some distal points might include:
Large Intestine 4: Located on your hand. This one’s really common, it’s a major point both for headache and also all those External Wind-type conditions.
Liver 2 & 3: These points are down on your foot, and could be used in those cases of Liver Yang Rising-type classic migraine headaches.
So, next time the devil is tap dancing on your head , maybe you could consider using acupuncture for headache!
For the avid readers amongst us, here’s a literature review that showed acupuncture could be considered effective to reduce the frequency of recurrent headaches:
Linde K, Allais G, Brinkhaus B, Fei Y, Mehring M, Vertosick EA, Vickers A, White AR. 2016 Acupuncture for the prevention of episodic migraine. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2016, Issue 6. Art. No.: CD001218. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD001218.pub3.