Acupuncture for headaches has been around for more than two thousand years (and still counting!) The descriptions in the earliest Chinese medicine texts involve fine differentiations between various locations of headaches, the type of pain suffered (whether stabbing, boring, pressure) and whether or not the headaches are associated with other symptoms. So migraines, chronic daily headaches, cluster headaches, will be analysed within a traditional acupuncture framework in order to understand your condition.

Acupuncture for Headaches – and other simple remedies

This article by Roisin Golding was first published by the Los Angeles Times (Syn.)

Some of the biggest advances in Western medicine have come through technology such as x-rays, (including CT scans – computed tomography – in which computer aids are used to display x-ray densities of the cranium), as well as advanced techniques using magnetic fields. Such x-ray vision allows diagnoses of nuclear precision. The specialist can pin-point exactly which area, down to the small capillary deep in the brain, or the cells within an organ, or even the gene within the chromosome, that is causing symptoms. All this cleverness fills one with respect and awe.

It is therefore all the more surprising when the treatment for many of these accurately diagnosed illnesses still boils down to a few common pills. Take aspirin, for instance, which is used for illnesses as diverse as arthritis, heart problems, flues, colds, headaches, aches and pains, as well as a preventative for cerebral vascular accident (CVA or stroke).

Acupuncture could be considered Western medicine’s diametric opposite, in that it uses very broad categories to describe an illness, yet uses pin-point (sorry for the pun) accuracy in its treatment. Out of more than a thousand points to choose from, we practitioners needle approximately six points and sometimes as few as two.

Take, for example, chronic headaches. We check the exact site of pain to assess which meridian (energy pathway) is affected. Next we hear descriptions of the type of pain, which often proves a difficult task for the patient. After taking other associated symptoms – such as sleep disturbance or digestive problems – into account, the acupuncturist will ascribe a diagnosis using very broad terms. These will refer to the affected meridian and whether or not the particular energy is empty, full or stuck.

When one considers that these meridians are very long, many reaching from the head to the feet, there are many diseases which can, according to Chinese medicine, be caused by the same energy imbalance in any given meridian. Headache, heavy menstruation, red and sore eyes, sore breasts, irritability, frequent waking at night, high blood pressure and tinnitus, can all be caused by imbalance in one particular meridian.

Six main energy pathways could be implicated in any headache, and all of these affected by too much energy (generally causing pounding headaches), too little energy (causing dull heavy heads) or stuck energy (generally stabbing headaches.)

Besides taking ‘the needles’ or Chinese herbs, there are other remedies on offer, which can be guided by Chinese theory. Try some of the following.

If a headache starts at the back of the head, or if the whole head is pounding, then this is commonly caused by an infectious attack on the Tai Yang meridian and typically corresponds to a cold or flu in Western medicine. After ruling out meningitis by checking with your doctor (especially if this headache is severe,) try spearmint tea, preferably made with fresh leaves. This cools fever, dispels cold and also relieves headaches. It is also a useful remedy if this type of headache has become chronic. Peppermint tea is also excellent and, when added to sliced fresh ginger, will ease the symptoms of stomach flu as well.

For headaches associated with nasal congestion which accompanies a cold, brew six spring onion heads and drink as a tea. If the fever is very high and the catarrh seems infected, drink garlic tea with sage. Radish is also good at clearing catarrh and laryngitis. These remedies will probably make you perspire, so don’t worry if this happens, it’s part of the treatment.

Headaches that occur above the brow – frontal headaches – are considered to be connected with the stomach and colon meridians (because of their meridian pathway), and are therefore associated with constipation or stomach upset. Try rosemary tea, as this will help to strengthen the stomach and ease headaches. Carp is also considered a digestive tonic and remedy for headaches. Also, reduce spicy foods and alcohol.

Three teaspoons of honey in warm water is good for both constipation and headache. Drink morning and evening if this is also associated with insomnia. Honey also helps cleanse and detoxify the body.

If your headache is associated with hypertension, then eat celery cooked with vinegar (parboil, then fry with vinegar).

Headaches at the temple are associated with the Shao Yang meridian, which in turn is affected by stress, anger, and rich fatty foods. They are also sometimes associtated with gall stones. A change in diet and increase in exercise may help these, as will meditation techniques.

Western dietary advice includes cutting out caffeine, although this will cause a temporary headache approximately 18 hours after your last cup if you are a regular user. An Australian study of 4,558 people showed a significant rise in incidents of headaches for those who drank 4-5 cups per day.

Foods containing copper, such as chocolate, or those increasing absorption of copper, such as orange, causes an increased susceptibility to migraine headaches.

Studies have shown that taking a fish oil concentrate (from fatty fish rather than cod) will help over 50% of patients with migraine. As with all supplements, one should allow three months of supplementation for full effect.

Taking fever tablets regularly is also shown to be useful as a prophylaxis, although one should take a break for 3-5 days every 14.

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Roisin is no longer taking patients in order to spend more time teaching classical acupuncture to a wider audience. For more information on Roisin's work, please click here