Can acupuncture and Chinese medicine treat migraine headaches? This is one of the most frequent questions I am asked. The person asking either is a sufferer or is asking because someone they know suffers, and either way they are all too familiar with the agony associated with migraines.
I have treated my fair share of patients who suffer from bad headaches. However, the pain of a migraine plus accompanying symptoms equals its own special kind of hell.
While stress headaches are triggered by…um, stress, migraines can be set off by a variety of triggers, including certain foods, missing a meal, getting dehydrated, alcohol, scents and smells, sleep disruptions, stress and strong emotions, hormones, changes in barometric pressure, and bright sunlight.
One of the best ways to nail down what, if anything is setting off your headaches is to keep a diary or journal looking for patterns. Include items like when your headaches occur, what you were doing, possible factors that might have triggered the headache, and what you ate in the several hours before the onset of your headache.
Typically, migraines tend to move through stages. However, many sufferers don’t have all the stages. For some, the early stages may not progress into a headache, or the stages may differ with each headache. The stages include:
- Prodrome. Several hours to a day prior to the headache, you may feel fatigued, uneasy, moody, or crave certain foods.
- Aura. Vision problems, flashing lights, blind spots, a sense of confusion and even difficulty speaking may occur up to an hour before the onset of a headache.
- The Main Event. This is the headache itself, which can be severe and affect one or both sides of your head. You may experience other symptoms, like nausea, sensitivity to light, sounds, or smells. This stage may last for hours or days.
- Postdrome. Once the headache is over, you may feel pretty beat—tired, washed out, or achy.
In Chinese medicine, there are a number of patterns associated with migraine headaches, and require careful diagnosis by a licensed practitioner to be effectively treated (Yes, Chinese medicine can treat your migraines!). There are a couple of patterns in Chinese medicine that are commonly diagnosed in people who have migraines.
The first pattern is associated with your Chinese Liver, which is the organ system that’s responsible for the smooth flow of everything in your body. In a perfect world, the Qi (energy) in your energetic pathways move slowly and consistently upward, much like the rising of sap in a healthy tree. (Your Liver is associated with the element of wood in Chinese medicine.) While there are a variety of triggers, a Liver headache is frequently set off by strong emotions, anger, or stress. When you get a migraine according to this pattern, there is an uncontrolled rushing upward of Liver energy, which stagnates in your head, causing your headache. This kind of headache is typically severe and frequently one-sided.
To make things even a little more miserable, this kind of headache can be associated with heat symptoms like thirst, insomnia, irritability, and feeling hot or feverish. Throw in a little nausea, maybe some dizziness, and you’ve got a whopper.
A second common pattern associated with migraines is that of Blood stasis (or stagnation of Blood). What this means in terms of Chinese medicine is that Blood is not flowing smoothly, and this “blockage” is causing your headache.
This kind of headache may run the gamut of accompanying symptoms, but has two hallmark signs. First, the pain begins in a fixed location on your head or face, and second, the pain is intense. I have seen patients with this kind of a migraine point to the place where it starts with one finger—a small spot, always in the same place. From this small focal point blossoms a major, out-of-control headache.
Needless to say, if you suffer from migraines and want to treat them with Chinese medicine, you will need to seek the care of a practitioner who can diagnose, and then effectively treat you. That person may use acupuncture, Chinese herbs, food therapy, and ahem, lifestyle adjustments. In the meantime, some things you can do for self-care during a migraine include:
- Apply some cold. Wrap a dish towel around an ice pack, a bag of frozen peas, or a cold can of soda. Apply the cold to the area(s) of pain.
- Rest. If you have a monster headache, don’t even think about trying to work through it. Go home, lie down, and rest.
- Stay hydrated. Drink if possible, however, if nausea is a problem, try sucking on some ice chips.
- Desensitize. Protect yourself from bright lights and loud noises. Go indoors, close the shades, and turn out the lights. If you can’t be at home, use sunglasses and a wide brimmed hat to filter the bright light.
- Relax. Deep breathing, visualization, and meditation may help speed the passing of your symptoms.
- Caffeinate. Drinks with caffeine, such as coffee or tea may help soothe the pain associated with your migraine.
- Medicate. It would be unrealistic to expect anyone to suffer through a three-alarm migraine without medication. The recommended care in Western medicine would be to start with an over-the-counter analgesic (aspirin, ibuprofen), and if the pain doesn’t get better, go to a migraine-specific medication (prescribed by your doctor). It’s important to note here, that if you take any medication day after day (or even several times a week) you may get rebound headaches, which occur in the morning or if you miss a dose of medication. A better choice would be to seek out a qualified practitioner of Chinese medicine, get rid of the headaches once and for all, and stop with the medications.