Headaches and Migraines: Chinese Medical Approach

Nearly everyone will suffer from a headache at some point in time. Some estimates say that up to 50 million Americans suffer from severe, long-lasting, recurring headaches. Although most headaches are not symptomatic of another condition, some headaches may be a sign of a serious medical problem. Some of the signs a headache requires allopathic medical evaluation before you proceed with alternate methods of therapy are:

Headache disorders are traditionally classified as either primary or secondary. Primary headaches are idiopathic disorders, where the causes are not clear, and include migraines and tension headaches. Secondary headaches are those that are seen to be symptomatic of an identifiable medical cause, such as vasculitis, infection, structural vascular lesions (aneurysms), tumors of the brain, ear and eye abnormalities, systemic metabolic and endocrinologic disorders. These classifications are questionable since migraines and tension headaches have sources that can often be identified.

In this discussion we will consider the most common types of primary headaches, migraines and tension headaches, which can be treated by acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine.

Tension Headaches

Tension-type headaches are the most common headaches, and almost everyone has them once in a while. Tension headaches usually feel mild to moderately painful and appear on both sides of the head. The pain is usually described as if a tight band is wrapped around the head.

When we are subjected to a prolonged period of stress, a chronic state of hyper sympathetic activity (the "flight or fight" part of our central nervous system) and/or a suppressed parasympathetic response occurs. Shifting into a "sympathetic" mode is the body's attempt to deal with the stress appropriately, but is not meant to be a chronic state (i.e. we should deal with the stress, relax, and move on). During the development of this chronically sympathetic dominant mode, circulation is minimized to the internal organs by the constriction of blood vessels, including those to the head. This may eventually lead to the development of symptoms such as neck and upper back rigidity and stiffness, heaviness behind the eyes, and tension headaches.

Recurring tension headaches are almost always associated with chronic neck and upper back stiffness and rigidity, brought on by inappropriate responses to stress over a, relatively, long period of time.

Migraine Headaches

Typical migraine headaches are one-sided, pulsating or throbbing, and moderate to severe in intensity. Migraines are usually worsened with activity and exhibit sensitivity to light and noise. Migraines can be so severe that they can cause loss of appetite, blurred vision, vertigo, nausea and vomiting. A "classic" migraine, or migraine with an aura, refers to migraines that have a neurological phase. This neurological phase (aura) usually begins suddenly, lasts 15 to 30 minutes, and is followed by the headache phase that usually lasts up to several hours.

"Common" migraines, or migraines without an aura, are the most common type of migraine, and include 75% - 80% of all migraines. Common migraines are not preceded by an aura, but there are signs that last hours or a day before the migraine develops. Usually the individual has signs of behavioral and psychological disturbances, yawning, muscle pains, dietary cravings, and/or fatigue. The headaches develop gradually, last longer and are more debilitating than migraines with an aura.

The causes of migraine may be classified as primary causes and inducing causes. The primary cause is the pressure exerted on the nerves and the inducing causes include: stress, anxiety, menses, bright lights, a drop in the barometric pressure, lack of sleep, hunger, over exertion, odors, and food allergies (nitrites, glutamates, caffeine, tyrosine, etc.)

The usual treatment Western medical doctors recommend for migraine or chronic tension headaches is NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). For the occasional headache this may be an excellent and effective choice. But when used regularly, NSAIDs can produce secondary effects: upper gastrointestinal disorders (nausea, heartburn, diarrhea), liver stress, and may actually lead to "rebound" headaches.

Headaches and Migraines: Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) has a very consistent and philosophically based framework for headache etiology, physiology, diagnosis and treatment strategy. Acupuncture, as an effective treatment modality, has been applied to headaches from the earliest beginnings of TCM. The greatest advantage of acupuncture over Western medicine is that it does virtually no harm. In conjunction with stress management and the avoidance of inducing factors, TCM has an excellent track record for managing and "curing" chronic, recurring headaches.

A typical protocol for treating migraine headaches would be 5 - 10 treatments over a 2 - 4 week period. You should notice improvement after 1 - 3 sessions. In some cases herbal formulas may be used initially to break the patterns. Two formulas that I have found effective for migraine headaches are Head Q™, and Calm Dragon. After the initial sessions, follow up treatments may be recommended occasionally.

A typical protocol for recurring or chronic, tension type headaches is the same as that of migraines, with some added emphasis on bodywork (shiatsu, tui na, acupressure) to relieve the muscular stress in the neck and upper back. This bodywork, particularly on the neck and shoulders, is included in the acupuncture session. I have had good results in addressing both tension type and migraine headaches.

Given that both migraines and tension headaches are often related to stress leading to neck, shoulder, upper back rigidity leading to headaches, it is highly recommended that one adopts a lifestyle that includes stress management activities, a diet that is varied, emphasizes fresh foods and avoids processed and/or chemically laden foods, and exercise.

Asian bodywork therapy, particularly shiatsu are excellent modalities for stress in general, neck and upper back tension in particular, and for the prevention of illness and the maintenance of well-being. I will often recommend these treatments on a monthly basis to my clients as part of an overall health maintenance program.


For more information:

If you would like to pursue this form of treatment, contact me at the following telephone number or e-mail address. You will be asked to fill out a detailed intake form before your first appointment. You may pick this up at my office, or I can e-mail it to you.


Calvin Dale Smith, BA, MSc, DOM
Doctor of Oriental Medicine (USA)
Riverside Acupuncture and Wellness Centre
2211 Riverside Dr., Suite 106
Ottawa, ON K1H 7X5
cdalesmith at calvindale.com