Acupuncture & headaches
Acupuncture can be an effective treatment for headaches and migraines. It is currently recommended by NICE, and GPs are allowed to recommend a treatment of 10 sessions of acupuncture over 5-8 weeks. It is always interesting for me that when patients describe their headaches, they nearly always follow the Gall Bladder meridian on the face and neck, as in the illustration above. Also, they often describe feelings of heat, which corresponds to the most common TCM syndrome associated with headaches: Liver Yang Rising. We consist of Yin (the cool aspect) and Yang (the hot aspect). When Yin becomes weak and Yang becomes relatively too strong, it rises to the head, causing Heat and tension.
My personal experience
However, despite the best acupuncture treatment, headaches may not lessen unless sufferers make lifestyle changes. I have personal experience of this, having suffered from migraines for many years. My migraines could be severe: sometimes I would vomit and only be capable of lying down in a dark, quiet room. There are certain things I do/don’t do to lessen migraines. In my case, coffee and alcohol can bring on a migraine. Other triggers include long journeys and stressful situations (at one point in my life, whenever I met an ex-boyfriend, I would feel my head tightening up). My menstrual cycle would also cause migraines, which is common. Women are three times more likely to suffer than men, which can be attributed to hormones (WHO, 2014), and of the women who have migraines, 35-54% say these are affected by the menstrual cycle (D’Arcy, 2011). My dissertation in my final year of my acupuncture degree was on menstrual migraines.
Lifestyle tips for reducing headaches
1. Note your triggers
An interesting article in The Guardian says that often our headaches are warning systems, telling us to stay away from what is harming us. So, the first step to controlling them is to pay attention to our bodies and note what happens before a headache. Some things we can avoid or be very careful with — if I drink alcohol or coffee, I do so in moderation and make sure I drink lots of water or herbal tea as well. Some things we learn to work around — when I go on long journeys, I schedule an extra day to recover on arrival.
2. Avoid common triggers
Certain substances are known to cause headaches. I would advise anyone prone to headaches to at least cut down on them to see if their headaches improve.
- Aged cheese
- Citrus fruits
- Monosodium glutamate
- Smoked and preserved foods.
- Tobacco (including second-hand smoking)
In my experience, alcohol, caffeine and tobacco are often the worst culprits because people often take them regularly in largish amounts. Other risk factors include bright lights and loud noises. There is also a link between migraine and motion sickness.
3. Keep a routine
People who suffer from migraines are sensitive to environmental changes, which their bodies perceive as threatening. This could be external (e.g. food, drink, light, noise) or internal (hormones). Keeping a regular routine, particularly with regard to sleep and meals, can reduce headaches. Missing meals or eating irregularly reduces blood sugar, which can cause headaches as the brain becomes starved of fuel. It is also important to be hydrated.
Pain in Chinese medicine is the result of Qi or energy not moving. One of the best ways to move Qi is moderate exercise, according to the Migraine Trust. However, it is worth pointing out that there are certain times when exercise can be a trigger (e.g. if you have not eaten or drunk enough water, if it is too strenuous).
Some headache sufferers find it difficult to relax and chill out. In fact, sometimes a headache is a warning telling them to do so. The sufferer needs to find an active form of relaxation that works for them. This could be a hobby, such as gardening or painting, or relaxation techniques, but not a form of passive relaxation such as watching the television. I find abdominal breathing helpful for headaches, as it brings the energy down from the head into the belly. A useful leaflet on the technique can be found here. Also, Insight Timer has lots of free guided meditations.
Cox, D., (2018) Seven Ways to Manage Migraines The Guardian. [Online]
D’Arcy, Y., 2011. Prophylaxis and Treatment of Menstrual Migraine. Pain Management Nursing, 12(1), pp. 11-16.
MacIntyre, M., 2013 Western Herbal Medicine: Migraines & Headaches [Handout]
WHO, 2014. How common are headaches?. [Online] Available at: http://www.who.int/features/qa/25/en/