Treatment of Headaches & Migraine with Acupuncture & Moxibustion
Oriental medicine and Acupuncture have been used to effectively treat headaches for thousands of years. The primary advantage over western drugs is the complete lack of side effects. Also, with correct treatment, the condition often clears up completely, even in stubborn cases, with very low recurrence and with no on-going reliance on medication. Needling is mostly on the legs and arms, well away from the actual pain area, and should be painless if skilfully carried out. Give it a try!
Primary Headaches & Secondary Headaches
Modern medicine sees headaches as either "primary headaches" or "secondary headaches".
A primary headache is a clinical condition in its own right and although it may be painful, is considered benign and not dangerous. Most headaches fall into this category
A secondary headache is a symptom of some underlying clinical disorder. For example, common causes of secondary headaches are infection, tumour, stroke, head injury, neck pain/ disorder, dehydration etc. Depending on the cause, these headache may be harmless or may be a red-flag indicator of a dangerous condition.
Acupuncture & Headaches
Chinese medicine does not make a its distinctions in the same way. Rather, any pain (apart from physical trauma) including a headache or migraine is viewed as part of a complex of other symptoms and characteristics of the patient. These are considered together, leading to diagnosis of an overall "pattern". Treatment is then carried out to change the pattern or configuration of the patient leading to resolution of the headaches together with other symptoms which may seem unrelated to western concepts.
In Acupuncture, the location of the headache can be one useful factor in determining which other body areas/ internal organ systems may be useful to check/ consider as part of the underlying reason for the headache. As a very rough rule of thumb:
Frontal Headaches are often associated with some kind of digestive system disorder.
Headaches on the temples or side of the head are often related to the GallBladder system, stress or are noise related.
Headaches at the occipital area (base of the skull) are often indicative of tension in the neck & upper body. In oriental medicine this can be related with the Bladder & Kidney systems.
Headaches at the crown and behind the Eyes are often associated with various imbalances in the Liver system.
The brain itself has no pain receptors (nocioceptors). It is the other structures in the head and neck where pain is actually felt: the various cranial nerves; the muscles of the head & neck; the blood vessels; the eyes, mouth and ears.
Anything which causes the pain receptors to be pulled or irritated will result in headache. This can include infection or irritation or traction of meninges; spasm or dilation of blood vessels; muscular or connective tissue tension and of course, trauma.
From a more global perspective, a discussion of headaches pain should also include the autonomic nervous system which is responsible for the regulation and function of all your internal organs. This is divided into the sympathetic (fight or flight) branch for immediate survival situations and the non-sympathetic (relaxing, restorative) branch for long term health. More on that here.
For our purposes here it is sufficient to understand that long periods stuck in the sympathetic (fight of flight) mode results in a tightening of the connective tissues, constriction of blood vessels and and up-regulation of nerve sensitivity.
Tension Headache Background
This is one of the most common types of headache. It is generally agreed that this type results from over-activation of nerves in the neck, shoulder & head muscles leading to stimulation of the pain receptors. As these muscles can often become stiff and chronically tight this headache can recur easily unless the underlying causes are addressed.
Treatment of Tension Headache with Acupuncture
Acupuncture is used here to adjust the Autonomic Nervous system to a more appropriate balance between the sympathetic and non-sympathetic branches. On a local level, (particularly the back of the neck and upper shoulders) blood flow is improved and the muscles/ connective tissue released.
The cause of migraine is not well agreed. One theory suggests it is caused by nerve disfunction. Another, the "Vascular Theory", suggests the Migraine pain results from excessive dilation of the blood vessels surrounding the brain after a period of excessive constriction. In this view Migraine pain is actually the "cure" process or "healing reaction" heralding the end of the constricted condition.
Treatment of Migraine with Acupuncture
Relief: During Migraine attack, treatment with acupuncture is almost all carried out on areas away from the head itself. From an oriental perspective we are drawing the concentration of Ki away from the affected area. From a western view, this makes sense in terms of the Vascular Theory because as local needling usually results in increased blood flow. Precisely what we have too much of at the time of migraine crisis.
Prevention: Between Migraine Attacks, treatment will be more general and may include work on the neck and head depending on the other symptoms and condition of the patient.