Can Acupuncture Treat Headaches?
by Kath Bartlett, LAc
Kath Bartlett, LAc, practices
at the Asheville Center for Chinese Medicine, located
in downtown Asheville. Kath is a nationally certified
Diplomate of Acupuncture and Herbology. She received a
Master's of Science in Traditional Oriental Medicine from
the prestigious, Pacific College of Oriental Medicine.
She has completed advanced studies in the classic Chinese
medical texts of Herbology and Oriental medical theory
with Dr. Min Fan, formally of Beijing University. Kath
can be contacted for acupuncture treatments or herbal
and dietary consultations at Asheville Center for Chinese
Medicine at 828/258-2777
Can you treat headaches with acupuncture? My Mom has
terrible headaches; she's had them for years. She gets them
five days a week. She has to spend most of the day lying
down. She had one Sunday when I was visiting. It's hard
to watch. I was wondering if there's anything acupuncture
could do for her. I'd sure like to find something that could
Jack Collins, Asheville, NC
You've come to the right place, I'm happy to say with assurance
that acupuncture is very effective for treating headaches of all
kinds, including migraines, headaches occurring around the menstrual
cycle, sinus headaches and stress related headaches and headaches
occurring with colds and flus. In fact, I would be hard pressed
to think of a case when I have not gotten good results treating
a headache. Usually patients notice the pain diminishing during
or immediately after the acupuncture treatment.
Let me share with you my favorite headache story that occurred
while I was in acupuncture college. A patient came into the student
clinic, holding a prescription for morphine in her hand. She was
a young girl (about 20 years old) and had been having severe migraine
headaches everyday for several years. The doctors did not know
what to do for her, other than giving her stronger and stronger
painkillers, the standard western medical treatment for headaches.
At 20 years old, she now had a prescription for a mind-altering,
highly addictive drug, and not real hope that the headaches would
stop. She remembered our clinic, and decided to come see if acupuncture
could help her before she filled the morphine prescription.
We did an initial intake, asking questions about how long she
had been having headaches, what seemed to make it better or worse,
what type of pain she felt, and where on her head the pain was
located, as well as some general questions regarding her overall
state of health. Then we gave her an acupuncture treatment. After
the first two needles were inserted, we waited and observed her
reaction. After a few minutes, the patient (I'll call her Connie)
began to cry. We asked her what was the matter. Connie told us
that this was the first time in several years that she had felt
the pain go away. She was so relieved that she began to cry.
I have treated many patients with headaches and find that they
usually go away within five to seven acupuncture treatments. Chronic
headaches that have gone on for many years, or severe migraines
may take longer to resolve, but I do expect that the headaches
will completely stop with acupuncture treatment.
Why is acupuncture (Chinese medicine) so effective at treating
this condition? The main reason is that in Traditional Chinese
Medicine (TCM) we do a pattern diagnosis, looking for a constitutional
pattern of related symptoms affecting the whole body. Some examples
of common patterns causing headaches include deficiency: mild
pain that comes in bouts and is better with rest, weakness and
fatigue, poor memory and concentration. Women may notice it after
the menstrual period. In this case Qi (your body's energy) and
Blood are deficient and cannot nourish the brain, causing weakness
and pain. Another pattern that we notice is due to excess fluid
accumulation. In this scenario we feel that the digestive system
is weak, and cannot process fluids properly. With this type of
headache the patient feels a pressure type pain in the head or
feeling that the head is wrapped, a heavy or muzzy headed feeling,
poor appetite and a feeling of fullness in the chest. The pressure,
heaviness and fullness are due to the excess, accumulated fluids:
poor appetite shows weak digestive function.
We see headaches that are due to blood not circulating properly.
A stabbing, boring type of pain characterizes this headache. This
headache commonly occurs after a head injury. Women may have painful
periods with dark-clotted blood. A common headache is due to too
much Qi rising to the headache. This headache is severe, throbbing
or pounding pain, often related to stress. The pain is usually
on the temples or behind the eyes. There may be nausea or vomiting
(stomach qi rising up) or the patient may see auras or lights.
Standard western medicine diagnoses headaches according to type
or physical causes: cluster headaches (headaches grouped together
in the same day of over several weeks), tension headaches (due
to tight muscles in the neck and base of the head), headaches
due to head injuries (characterized by stabbing, boring pain)
or migraines (severe pain, often accompanied by nausea and seeing
auras). These headaches are all basically treated in the same
manner, using weaker or stronger painkillers.
In TCM, we treat each of these headaches differently, depending
upon the cause, using acupuncture and herbal formulas. A patient
with a deficiency headache is treated using acupuncture points
and herbal formulas that build qi and Blood. Ginseng is a commonly
known qi tonification herb. Many people are familiar with Angelica,
which builds and invigorates blood. If weak digestion and excess
fluids are the problem we use points and herbs to strengthen digestive
function and drain excess fluids. Tangerine peel is often used,
in combination with other herbs. Moving blood treats a blood stagnation
headache. Peach seed and safflower are a synergist herbal combination
to move blood. In a qi rising headache we want to anchor the qi.
Points in the feet are often used, as well as heavy minerals,
such as oyster shell. In Connie's case, the two needles were placed
on her foot and ankle.
In acupuncture, we feel that qi moves in vessels, called channels
or meridians. Just as we have a blood vessel, nervous and lymphatic
system, we also feel there is a system that qi moves in. These
channels begin at the fingers and toes, and go up to the head.
We try to determine where on the head the pain is to see which
meridian is affected, and then do points on the affected channel
near the painful area, or we needle points on that meridian in
the arms or legs. We feel that when there is pain, there is a
blockage in the qi flow of the affected channel, and we needle
points to open up and correct the smooth flow of qi in the meridian.
Some of the acupuncture points on the channels have specific functions,
such as tonifying qi and Blood, anchoring qi, or regulating fluids.
So we also needle acupuncture points with the appropriate function
for the constitutional pattern we are treating.