The Western approach to headaches is generally divided into symptomatic treatment and etiological treatment. The former gives pain medications while the latter aims at the mechanisms of headache development that often uses drugs such as vasodilators, antidepressants, and anticonvulsants. Pain medications can rapidly relieve the pain, but they have limited efficacy and sometimes they don’t work at all. On the other hand, headaches have so many causes, some of them are still not clearly understood, etiological treatment is difficult to carry out too. For chronic or recurrent headaches, an integrative approach of symptomatic and etiological treatment may be the key to prevent or relieve headache attacks.
Tradition Chinese medicine (TCM) has extensive experience in diagnosing and treating headaches. Headaches are often regarded as an independent disease that has been fully explored by physicians from different generations. For some headache cases, if the causes remain uncertain after thorough medical checkups, or those diagnosed with tension headache, migraine, and post-traumatic headache, TCM treatment can be used to complement conventional medical treatments.
Headache attacks differ from person to person; the duration and intensity can be varied over a wide range. It is essential that the treatment strategy is tailored to meet the individual needs. Western medicine treats headache according to the types of headache, named as tension headache, migraine, cluster headache, rebound headache, allergic headache and post-traumatic headache. TCM has a unique way to understand how headaches develop, physicians diagnose and treat headaches in many different ways.
Clinic treating headache
Assessing your headache
According to TCM, health is a harmonious balance of mind and body
with their surroundings. In contrast, illness is an imbalance. In the
case of headaches, TCM defines many different types, but essentially
they all boil down to a single root cause: the lack of free flow of Blood
For example, your headache could be caused by a deficiency
condition, in which there is not enough Qi and Blood to nourish the
head. In contrast, a sinus congestion headache might be diagnosed
as too much Phlegm and Dampness obstructing the flow of Qi and
At your first visit to a TCM practitioner, you’ll be asked about the
location of your headache, the nature of the pain, and what makes it
better or worse. Your practitioner will also examine your tongue and
complexion and take your pulse to determine whether you’re
suffering from an excess or a deficiency condition, or a combination
Treating your headache
Treatments for headaches follow a similar strategy to treatments for
other pain conditions. Acupuncture can be very effective. In
addition, herbs and dietary advice may be used, especially as part of
a prevention strategy.
As with other pain conditions, you will need roughly one weekly
treatment for every month you’ve been living with your headaches.
You can expect that your pain level will decrease after a single
treatment. It will likely return before your second treatment, but
probably not to the original level. After the second treatment, you
can expect a greater reduction in pain and a longer lasting effect,
and so on for each subsequent treatment.
Keep in mind that not all pain is treated the same way. TCM always
looks at the whole person, including diet and lifestyle. So it’s not just
a migraine headache that’s being treated, it’s a migraine created by
the particular factors contributing to your body’s state of imbalance.
This means that the same kind of headache may be treated quite
differently in different people, and individual responses to treatment
can also vary widely.
Several studies have documented the effectiveness of both herbs and
acupuncture in treating headaches.
For example, a study of Chinese herbs and migraine headaches used
a classical formula to treat 57 patients. After 20-30 days of herbal
treatment, 42% of patients were clinically cured and another 46%
showed measurable improvements2.
Other studies have focussed on the use of acupuncture to treat
migraines. One study of 150 patients revealed 51% were clinically
cured and 47% showed measurable improvements following
acupuncture3. In another study, 81% of patients with chronic
headaches reported improvements at the end of ten acupuncture
sessions4. Most recently, an Italian study found that women who
chose acupuncture to prevent migraines rather than flunarizine, a
calcium channel blocker, experienced fewer initial symptoms, fewer
attacks and fewer side effects from the treatment.
Because stress and diet usually play a big role, TCM can help to
prevent recurring headaches through lifestyle counselling. For
example, if your headache is caused by excess damp, avoiding dairy
products and sugar can be helpful. For headaches caused by Qi and
Blood deficiency, you should consume nourishing hot food and avoid
raw fruits and fruit juices. Your practitioner can offer advice on
modifying your diet, developing a gentle exercise routine, and