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Acupuncture for the Treatment of Headaches

Throughout the series I have talked about a wide range of conditions that can be treated with acupuncture from the well-known ones such as fertility, to less common things such as shingles. You can find out more by reading the other articles in the series:

Acupuncture – What Is It and How Does It Work?
Shingles – What Is It and How Can Acupuncture Help?
Acupuncture, a Powerful Treatment for Stress and Insomnia
Acupuncture as a Treatment for Depression
Acupuncture to Prevent Chronic Infections
Fertility in Chinese Medicine Pt 1 – Supporting Kidney Essence
Fertility in Chinese Medicine Pt 2 – Acupuncture for Infertility
Acupuncture for the Treatment of Irritable Bowel Syndrome

As I have discussed in previous articles, Chinese medicine gives more detailed patterns and descriptions for common medical conditions than western medicine does. Headaches are no different. Although western and Chinese medicine describe pretty much the same headache patterns, Chinese medicine gives more details that help us go deeper in our treatment. This depth of detail is one of the reasons acupuncture can be so effective – by taking the same basic patterns of headaches (such as sinus headaches, musculoskeletal headaches, hormone headaches, cluster headaches or migraines) and combining them with more general symptoms, Chinese medicine allows us to tailor treatment to each individual patient and treat the root cause of their headaches as well as the symptoms.

Causes of Headaches in Chinese Medicine

In traditional Chinese medicine the head is the place where all yang meridians meet – yang being the hot, fiery, external, upward and outward energy of the body. In addition to this, the qi, blood, and energy of the organs all flow up towards the head as well so, anything that affects the flow of qi and blood to the head can trigger a headache.

As with other conditions discussed in this series, the majority of headaches are caused by an excess of something, but sometimes that excess is due to an underlying deficient such as primarily, blood deficiency. Let’s run through each of the key headache patterns – their symptoms, where the pain is located, treatment principle and acupuncture points used.

Headache Patterns – Excess

Invasion of Wind Cold
This headache pattern is associated with the onset of colds, flu and allergies.

Symptoms:  Sharp pain and/or pressure in the sinuses in the forehead and around the top of the nose, swelling of the face nasal congestion and discharge.
Treatment Principle: To eliminate the wind, move the stagnation and reduce the headache.
Acupuncture Points:
Gallbladder 20 – At the back of the neck along the base of the skull (occipital ridge) in the depression just behind the ears.
Large Intestine 20 – In the nasolabial groove either side of the nostrils.
Large Intestine 4 – In the fleshy bit between the thumb and first finger, in the V where the bones meet.

Upsurge of Liver Yang
Symptoms: Constant, throbbing headache at the top of the head, elevated blood pressure, blurry vision, short temper, flushes, hot face, red eyes, bitter taste in the mouth
Treatment Principle:  To reduce the liver yang and move the stagnation
Acupuncture Points:
Liver 5 – About 5 inches above the tip of the inner ankle bone alongside the tibia bone.
Kidney 3 – Inside of the ankle in the depression between the ankle bone and Achilles tendon.
Gallbladder 4 – Just within the hair line at the lower border of the temples.

Phlegm Damp Stagnation
This headache pattern is associated with food allergies and is therefore often coupled with digestive symptoms.

Symptoms: Pain radiating backwards from the forehead and across the temples or in the eye, increased swelling throughout the body, tightness in the chest, nausea or vomiting, diarrhea, poor memory, fatigue, low appetite or sugar cravings
Treatment Principle: To clear the phlegm, remove the stagnation build up spleen qi.
Acupuncture Points:
Stomach 40 – On the top part of the lower leg about 8 fingers up from the outer ankle bone.
Ren 12 – On the midline of the abdomen about 4 finger widths above the belly button.

Stagnation of Blood
Symptoms: A chronic headache that can occur anywhere in the head but will have a fixed location. So for one person it might be right temple while for another it might be over the left eye.
Treatment Principle: To move the blood stagnation
Acupuncture Points:
Large Intestine 4 – In the fleshy bit between the thumb and first finger, in the V where the bones meet.
Spleen 6 – 3 finger-widths above the ankle on the inside of the leg.

Headache Patterns – Deficiency

Blood deficiency  
People who experience this type of chronic headache tend to be pale and lethargic; they may also experience heart palpitations. This pattern may occur after menses.

Symptoms: Either a generalized, all-over headache or pain in the occipital region at the back of the head, dizziness, fatigue, poor memory.
Treatment Principle: To nourish the blood, build kidney essence and tonify the spleen
Acupuncture Points:
Spleen 10 – Bend your knee and place the opposite hand on top of it with the thumb on the inside of the knee. The point is where the tip of your thumb rests.
Stomach 36 – About 4 finger-widths below the knee on the outside of the shin bone. If you feel around there is usually a place your finger easily lands on, this is stomach 36.
Spleen 6 – Three finger-widths above the ankle on the inside of the leg.

If you are able to identify which headache pattern you have, then massaging or pressing on any of the associated points may help to alleviate the pain. Here are some other points that can help ease a headache in a specific location:

Du 23 – About an inch behind the front hairline in the midline of the head
GB 14 – On the forehead 1 inch above the center of the eyebrow
UB 2 – At the inside border of the eyebrow
Yin Tang – Midway between the inside of the two eyebrows (known as the third eye in yoga)

Top of the Head
Du 20 – Top center of the head
Du 21 – Top of head about 1.5 inches in front of Du 20
KD 1 – In the center of the sole of the foot a third of the way down from the top of the foot
Liver 2 – Top of the web of skin between the first and second toe
Liver 3 – On the top of the foot in the web between the first and second toe, 2 finger-widths behind Liver 2

Back of the Head/Occipital
GB 20 – Back of the neck, halfway between the spine and the ears, just under the base of the skull
UB 10 – Along the same line as GB 20, closer to the spine
UB 60 – In the depression between the outside ankle bone and the Achilles tendon
UB 62 – In the depression directly below the outside ankle bone

Side of the Head/Temples
GB 8 – Directly above the top of the ear 1.5 inches inside the hairline
Tai Yang – An inch behind the lower border of eyebrows in the tender part of the temples
GB 40 – On the outer ankle bone on the inside and below it. (UB 62 is the outside of bone)

Treatment in Addition to Acupuncture

There are some common treatments that are true for most headache types. When treating reoccurring or chronic headaches, I make sure to review the following with my patients in order to help minimize the frequency of their headaches:

Lack of sleep
Florescent lights
Being in direct sunlight with no hat or sunglasses
Food allergens – wheat and dairy, caffeine and alcohol can all trigger headaches
Uncorrected problems with vision
High blood pressure
Hormonal imbalances especially during your period
Tight muscles or misalignment of the cervical spine (neck)

Closing Thoughts

Headaches can be challenging to treat, even using pharmaceutical medications and avoiding as many of the triggers listed above. Acupuncture can reduce the frequency and intensity of their headaches for many people and can also help prevent rebound headaches once pharmaceutical medications wear off. If you struggle with headaches, be sure to make acupuncture part of your treatment.

My clinic remains open through the summer so feel free to book an appointment. However, this will be my last article until the fall – I will start blogging again in September 2016 with a series on food allergies.

If you are in the Seattle area and would like to schedule an acupuncture treatment with me, my clinic is in Issaquah. I also offer naturopathic appointments in person or on the phone and you can book any of these by using the book online tool above.

If you would like to follow along you can subscribe by putting your email address into the subscription box to the right of the screen.

Dr. Maura Scanlan

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