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Acupuncture in the Treatment of Headache

headache, migraine, pain in head
headache, migraine, pain in head

Few people have never experienced a headache.

This is, in part, because head pain has a huge variety of causes and presentations – there are tension headaches, cluster headaches, allergy headaches, and caffeine-withdrawal headaches, to name just a few. Alarmingly, nearly 38 million Americans, including children, suffer from regular migraines. This makes it the third most common ailment in the world.

When a headache strikes, most people reach for over-the-counter or prescription painkillers. There are two big problems with this approach. First, it does not address the root cause of the headache. So, while pharmaceuticals may work to ease the pain temporarily, its source (i.e., caffeine dependence, seasonal allergies, eye strain, stress, or neck problems) will remain unaddressed. Second, even though painkillers work well for mild or occasional headaches, consistent use can have unpleasant side effects. “Rebound headaches,” for example, are often triggered when the body has built up a tolerance to painkillers, rendering them potentially harmful.

For this and many other reasons, more and more people are turning to acupuncture to treat their headaches.

How does Chinese medicine view headaches?

Chinese medicine has many effective strategies for managing and eradicating headaches, especially acupuncture. The first step of any successful headache treatment is to define the headache using the eight parameters. Chen Guo-Peng was the first to systematize this basic diagnostic criteria, which has been in use for millennia. The core concept of the parameters is that every disease has a “true nature.” Practitioners can access this with questioning, tongue diagnosis, and pulse diagnosis to establish whether a condition is hot or cold, deficiency or excess, interior or exterior, yin or yang. Here are a few of the questions he or she might ask:

  • Where are the headaches located?
  • When did the headaches start?
  • Does the pain move around or stay in one place?
  • Do climatic factors (temperature, rain, humidity, pressure) influence the pain?
  • When do the headaches tend to occur?
  • Have you noticed any factors that prevent or ease the headaches?
  • What is your stress level?
  • How is your sleep?

Answering these questions helps practitioners filter through the eight parameters to arrive at a diagnosis, and also helps patients connect the dots. Diagnostic questions often bring them to a reflective state that aids in their recognition of habitual patterning. This creates an opportunity not only for solving a vexing headache, but to create a potent vessel for self-cultivation and personal growth. By creating awareness around reactivity and behavior, we are able to see choices more clearly, and heighten our consciousness of the triggers that can compromise our health.

Does research support acupuncture for headaches?

Because acupuncture has been shown to effectively treat chronic pain problems without dangerous side effects, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has long supported it as a treatment for headaches. Today, as it has for several years, the NIH suggests that acupuncture “may help reduce the frequency of tension headaches and prevent migraine headaches.” This support is backed by more than ten years of solid clinical research, which is great news for sufferers who have not found lasting relief with conventional treatments.

One meta-analysis published earlier this year showed that acupuncture reliably prevents both chronic and episodic tension headaches. This type of headache is extremely common, and marked by a persistent, painful pressure around the head. While even Western physicians now recommend nondrug treatments (like relaxation and massage) for this condition, this can be complicated for those who suffer from regular tension headaches. Many become anxious if they feel that one is coming, which exacerbates the problem and make even simple tasks needlessly difficult. The studies that were included in this meta-analysis showed not only that acupuncture can prevent tension headaches, but that these effects last at least six months after the treatments have ended. This suggests that acupuncture can provide vital peace of mind and stress reduction, in addition to pain relief.

Another review, published in 2015, found similar results for migraines. According to the authors,

there is consistent evidence that acupuncture provides additional benefit to treatment of acute migraine attacks only or to routine care. […] Available studies suggest that acupuncture is at least as effective as, or possibly more effective than, prophylactic drug treatment, and has fewer adverse effects.

While the studies included in this review pertain specifically to adults, one surprising finding from recent research is that acupuncture may also help manage headaches in children. Though this study was preliminary, it demonstrated that acupuncture can reduce the pain associated with migraines in people under 18.

Final Thoughts

If you suffer from regular headaches, it is extremely valuable to figure out what might be causing them. Wherever possible, taking preventive measures for your headaches – like getting adequate sleep, eating well, and addressing emotional disturbances – is preferable to relying on painkillers. In cases where this is not enough to manage frequent headaches, speaking to an experienced acupuncturist may help you get to the root of the problem and prevent them from happening over the long term.

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Philadelphia, PA, 19118

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