Acupuncture has always been a popular choice for people suffering with headaches and migraines – in 2016 however I’ve really noticed a huge increase in the number of people coming to see me, so time I sat down and wrote about how I use acupuncture to help.
Starting off with headaches (as opposed to migraines) – the most common I see is ‘tension type headaches’ which often feel like the band of tightness or pressure across the sides of the head and forehead. They can affect the sides of the face and eyes too and most of us will have experienced these headaches a few times in our lives. They can be triggered by stress, dehydration and low blood sugar and will pass in time. However when these occasional headaches become frequent or even constant they really start in interfere with your quality of life and many people feel unhappy about taking pain relief for these headaches on a daily basis.
In my experience I have not yet (in 8 years of practice) seen a chronic tension headache sufferer without a significant degree of muscular tension somewhere in their neck and upper back muscles. My first step is to relieve the tension in the muscles supporting the head – using cupping therapy and more frequently Tui-Na on the sides and front aspects of the neck where cupping and acupuncture would be inappropriate. I think most of my patients would agree that it is pretty painful the first couple of times I work on these muscles, but that it soon becomes more tolerable – and the headaches decrease in severity at the same time. I use acupuncture for general tension and trigger points in the upper back, often the trapezius muscle is affected and sometimes into the forehead and jaw. I even find little trigger points all over the scalp sometimes and loosening off the scalp with massage and acupuncture is probably the most enjoyable part of the session. It’s important that my patients practice gentle neck stretches in between appointments and become aware of their posture if doing a desk based job for example.
From the view of Chinese medicine these headaches are often diagnosed as Liver Qi stagnation – the Qi or energy has got stuck and cannot flow properly through the meridians in the head and face. Liver Qi is most easily affected by strong emotions including stress, frustration and anger and for women the reproductive hormones can also affect Liver Qi. I add in acupuncture points often on the feet and legs that encourage the Liver Qi to get moving again. Broadly speaking I find acupuncture and Tui-Na to be very effective for tension type headaches and would expect most patients to see a significant improvement within 4-6 weekly sessions.
Coming on to migraines, which in themselves can vary hugely and include other problems such as vomiting and aura. In Chinese medicine migraines again involve the Liver Qi – though the diagnosis is often Liver Yang Rising or Liver Fire. The approach to try and let the body release tension gently and consistently so it doesn’t build up like a pressure cooker which suddenly pops. Once a migraine is established there is little you can do bar wait it out so it’s about using acupuncture to prevent them in the time between. I use the similar approach for migraines as I do with headaches – firstly loosening off all the upper back, neck and scalp tension and I find this reduces the symptom of pain dramatically in most patients. It’s important to include acupuncture points around the body that support that persons constitution and to look more closely at underlying triggers, whether they be food, light or hormonal fluctuations. Interestingly Chinese medicine relates smooth digestive functioning to be important in preventing migraines and a recent study looked at the gut bacteria in migraine vs non migraine sufferers finding a significant difference.
While a tension type headache can be more painful than a migraine and a migraine may present without pain but just visual disturbances – tension headaches do respond better and quicker than migraines most of the time. One of the biggest differences I would say is that with tension headaches I can really just focus on the area of pain from a physical aspect and still see good results. With migraine sufferers you often need to dramatically change your daily lifestyle and approach to life alongside acupuncture to see the best results.
Always speak with your GP if you suffer with chronic headaches – or suddenly experience a new headache which does not go away after a few days. Occasionally headaches can be a sign of something more serious so get their advice. If you’d like to try acupuncture for your headache or if you’d like to speak with me prior to booking in please ring clinic reception on 01603 665173 or email email@example.com marked FAO Kate McDougall