Headaches are a common ailment and can make life very difficult. Headaches can have a wide range of causes, but often the causes are not well understood by Western medicine, and in most cases do not have an identifiable underlying physical cause. To make matters worse, headaches can often be a rebound effect of the very medication that people take to relieve them. Medications are usually the standard treatment method, however some chronic daily headaches are resistant to all medications.
Fortunately, acupuncture can offer both immediate as well as long-term relief. In Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), a number of factors are always considered in headaches. These are constitution, emotions, overwork, diet, accidents, childbirth and external pathogenic factors (such as common cold). There are a few ways to diagnose the cause of headaches, one is according to the where the headache is located on the head and which meridian is being affected, another is according to the pain type.
A headache on the top of the head is part of the liver channel and is commonly due to a liver-blood deficiency; this type of headache gives a dull pain and will usually improve when lying down. A headache on the sides of the head indicates gallbladder channel and is commonly due to too much heat or fire in the liver. This headache will be sharp and/or throbbing.
Headache behind the eyes, a frequent location for migraines, is also due to liver-blood deficiency if the pain is dull, or liver heat if the pain is sharp and severe. The forehead is part of the stomach channel and is either a stomach deficiency if the headache is dull, or stomach heat if it is sharp.
The back of the head is part of the bladder channel and if headaches in this area are chronic, it usually indicates a kidney deficiency manifesting on that channel. An acute headache on the back of the head is most commonly due to exposure to cold weather and usually indicates the beginning stage of a common cold.
If the whole head is affected and the pain is chronic, it is due to a kidney-essence deficiency. The kidney essence is said to nourish the brain, if it is deficient and the brains lack this nourishment there will be a chronic dull headache with a sensation of emptiness.
When diagnosing according to pain type, dull pain means deficiency. A feeling of heaviness is characteristic of dampness or phlegm obstructing the head and preventing proper circulation. A distending headache that is throbbing, bursting, or pulsating is typically due to the liver (liver-heat). Stabbing headaches with a sensation of very intense pain and fixed in one location are due to blood stasis. Stiffness or tension headache is commonly due to overactive heat in the liver if chronic and invasion of cold if acute.
There are other factors that can be used in understanding headaches such as what aggravates or eliminates the headaches, including time of day, activity/rest, weather, emotions, food, posture, time of month, and if there is relief or more pain with palpation.
Overall, this analysis gives an acupuncturist a very accurate picture of what is causing the headaches, therefore treatment is very targeted and effective. In fact, it is common for people to see relief after one or a few acupuncture treatments, although more treatments are often needed to resolve the problem. And long-term relief is possible- many patients reduce or eliminate their need for headache medication through acupuncture, demonstrating the effectiveness of this safe and natural therapy.
James Kaufman is a Registered Acupuncturist at Okanagan Acupuncture Centre, 1625 Ellis St, downtown Kelowna, BC.