One of the most common complaints for people to seek acupuncture care is for headaches. It can be the main symptom, or can accompany other conditions which cause the headache. Most people will experience a headache at some point, and it can affect people of any age or gender.
What causes headaches?
Headaches can be broken down into a few main categories, which also narrows down the cause of the headaches as well:
Tension headaches: one of the most common headaches, this pain can be felt daily. It can be described as tight or stiff and can be on either side of the head. Tension headaches are the result of muscle contractions in the head, usually as a result of stress, eye strain, lack of sleep, or dehydration.
Migraines: can be very severe and last for hours or days and can be associated with nausea, noise/light/odour sensitivity, or stomach pain. The pain is usually felt on one or either side of the head. It can be described as pounding or throbbing pain. While the cause of migraines is not fully understood, a popular theory is that it is a result of changing brain chemistry. Another cause could be the rebounding shift of action from the sympathetic system (the fight or flight state) to the parasympathetic system (the resting state). This shift will cause excessive blood flow to the head which induces heavy pressure upon each heart beat.
Cluster headaches: are less common but can be quite severe, with a burning characteristic. This pain is usually felt behind one or both eyes. It occurs when the trigeminal nerve (main facial nerve) is activated, which then leads to the pain felt in the eye. Research has shown cluster headaches to be generated by the hypothalamus.
Sinus headaches: are felt as a deep and constant pain in the forehead, bridge of nose, and cheekbones. Other associated symptoms may be sinus-like symptoms such as nasal discharge, feeling of fullness in the head, swelling. These headaches can also come with the changing of the weather or after a cold. Sinus headaches are caused when bacteria invade the nasal sinuses.
Cervicogenic headaches: are headaches which originate from a pain in the neck or spine, which then transfers to the head. These are common in patients with whiplash, chronic posture issues, or neck/shoulder problems.
How does acupuncture help treat headaches and migraines?
Traditional Chinese Medicine and acupuncture have had a long history in the treatment of headaches and migraines for all of the above categories. Many patients have found long-term relief through acupuncture that was not found through medication, most of which offered only temporary relief. Some headaches are actually caused by medications and leads to a “rebound” headache. The advantage of acupuncture over medication is that it does not have any associated side effects and does virtually no harm. Treatment of the headache or migraine is also focused on prevention of future attacks rather than reducing the pain temporarily.
By inserting fine needles into specific acupuncture points (acupoints) of the body, a healing response is triggered which will help to restore normal function to the head. The treatment varies largely on the type of headache experienced and which factors cause it to manifest. Typically the needles are inserted into the hands, feet, and head. The needling will stimulate the peripheral nervous system to regulate the action of the sympathetic and parasympathetic system. Essentially, it will bring balance to the body. Needling also releases endorphins (a natural painkiller) and reduces Substance P (a pain transmitter).
- Ropper AH, Samuels MA. Chapter 10. Headache and Other Craniofacial Pains. In: Ropper AH, Samuels MA, eds.Adams and Victor’s Principles of Neurology. 9th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill; 2009. www.accessmedicine.com/. Accessed December 27, 2011.
- Goadsby PJ, RaskinNH. Chapter 14. Headache. In: Longo DL, Fauci AS, Kasper DL, Hauser SL, Jameson JL, Loscalzo J, eds. Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine. 18th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill; 2012.www.accessmedicine.com/. Accessed December 27, 2011.
- Carlsson J, Fahlcrantz A, Augustinsson LE. Muscle tenderness in tension headache treated with acupuncture or physiotherapy. Cephalalgia 1990;10:131-141.