Can Acupuncture Treat Headaches?





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

Dear Kath,

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 help her.

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.

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