Migraines and Headaches
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.
With the hectic pace of modern life, many stressful situations are unavoidable, causing an increasing number of people to suffer from headaches. Headache is only a symptom, the cause of which is not necessarily in the head; problems in other parts of the body can also contribute to headaches. Since the causes and symptoms of headaches can be so different, headaches should be diagnosed and treated according to individual conditions, in particular for chronic and recurrent types such as migraine, traumatic headache or headache of neurovascular origin
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.
Tension-type headaches are the most common headaches, and almost everyone has them once in awhile. 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. 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.
Typical migraine headaches are one-sided, pulsating or throbbing, and moderate to severe in intensity. Migraines usually worsen 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, overexertion, odors, and food allergies (nitrites, glutamates, caffeine, tyrosine, etc.)
Western Medicine’s Approach to Headaches and Migraines
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 acceptable 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.
While over-the-counter pain medications can bring momentary relief, headaches cannot be treated or cured using these medications alone. Yet Western medicine doctors continue to treat headaches with a variety of drugs without giving much thought to the individual constitution, specific patterns, and lifestyle habits of the patient. This is a symptomatic approach at best meant to ease the pain headaches cause momentarily. Because migraine in Western medicine is considered a recurrent headache with unknown causes, there are no treatments meant to solve the root of the issue in order to cease migraine recurrence.
Chinese Medicine’s View of Headaches and Migraines
From the viewpoint of Chinese medicine (CM), headaches and migraines are classified according to the overall condition of the patient, not only the nature of the headache. The diagnosis of CM is the unique pattern differentiation of the clinical symptom-complexes, which represent specific pathological conditions that can be adjusted or reversed to physiological conditions by CM therapeutic techniques such as medicinal herbs, acupuncture and Qi Gong.
Chinese medicine regards the head as “the confluence of yang,” which means the head is closely connected with other parts of the body, and all the organs are responsible for nourishing it. CM believes that the brain is the sea of marrow, which is derived from Kidney essence and nourished by food nutrients. The head connects with the internal organs through the meridians and collaterals; it also has orifices to communicate with the external world directly. When external or internal factors impede the flow of Qi (energy) and blood in the meridians, disturb nutrient supply to the head, and block the head orifices, headaches will occur.
The headache is often looked at as a result of disturbance or imbalance of Yin-Yang within the Zang-Fu organ system or the Channel system (meridians), which are the two principal systems that regulate the functions of the body and mind.
Since there are many triggers or causes for headaches, the frequency and severity vary considerably between individuals. Clinically, CM physicians rely on specific headache details to analyze the pathological changes inside the body; the information help them find the underlying disharmony patterns and provide guideline for the treatments.
From a CM perspective, migraine is mainly due to invasion of wind and fire** that cause meridian obstructions and disturb the flow of blood and qi in the head. Also, liver dysfunction and its pertaining meridian have played important roles in the development process. CM treatment for migraine aims to calm the liver, dispel the pathogens and unblock the meridians. The treatment plan should be individualized according to specific disharmony patterns.
**The term “fire” in CM often is often referring to excessive heat in the body or aggressive entities such as bacterial and viral infections, but this word is not limited to these things. From a Western point of view, the heat-clearing herbs in Chinese medicine have been proven to have a very effective anti-viral and antibacterial action as well as a “cleansing of the blood” effect.
How Chinese Medicine Treats Headaches and Migraines
CM 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 CM. 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, CM has an excellent track record for managing and “curing” chronic, recurring headaches.
Chinese herbal medicine tends to be important in addressing most of the imbalances between the organ systems that can lead to headaches and migraines. Acupuncture can assist in this process and in particular can improve the flow of Qi through the acupuncture meridian or meridians that is/are involved. In some cases other techniques such as massage, Gua Sha or Cupping Therapy may be applied.
Typically one course of acupuncture is comprised of ten treatments. Generally, it is done weekly but if your headaches are severe we may suggest two treatments a week for the first few weeks to get things under control. In most cases you can expect to see improvement within 3-5 treatments. While its not uncommon to see pain reduction during the first or second treatment, each person responds differently. I tell patients approximately 80% of the time we can help them with their pain. Help means reduction of pain and frequency or complete cure.
Once the imbalance that is causing you to suffer headaches or migraines has been identified, our Atlanta acupuncturists can guide you in the therapies most suitable and also in the selection of foods and lifestyle changes that you may benefit from.
The point is, you are an individual, and the imbalances that lead you to suffer migraines are not identical to those that lead others to suffer migraines. So the treatment should be aimed at your situation and not be a blanket approach. Arrange an appointment with our acupuncturists at Buckhead Acupuncture if you want to find out more about treatment options.
Before you proceed with alternate methods of therapy, some of the signs a headache requires allopathic medical evaluation due to the possibility of a serious condition are:
- Headache following trauma
- Severe dizziness
- Vomiting without nausea
- Extreme neck stiffness
- High blood pressure
- Elderly individuals