Updated: Jun 29
Headaches are one of the most common complaints for which patients seek medical treatment. Headache is a subjective symptom and can accompany many acute and chronic diseases. In and of themselves, headaches are only a warning sign that some imbalance has occurred in the body. In ancient times, traditional Chinese medical physicians coined the phrase “brain wind” or “head wind” to describe the cause of headaches as the invasion of the head and brain by wind and cold. Another description of headaches was related to phlegm (congealed moisture trapped in the body) and stagnation of an energy called Chi. Both internal and external factors can cause headaches. To find the main cause of the headache rather than just treating the symptom is fundamental to Traditional Chinese medicine. Proper Chinese medical differentiation of the headache depends on the location of the pain, the type of pain, and the constitutional pattern. By using this strategy and applying appropriate treatment, acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine has been shown to be extremely effective.
Headaches are considered a blockage or deficiency in the flow of Chi or blood to the head. The physician must be aware of a number of other possible causes that may require specialized medical attention. Seemingly simple headaches may include meningitis, brain hemorrhage, brain tumors, high blood pressure, glaucoma, trigeminal neuralgia, dental problems, infections or cerebral vascular insufficiency including mini-strokes. Having the symptoms checked out early by an Oriental physician can improve prognosis and detect early life-threatening conditions.
Developing a good case history is part of determining the etiology of the headache. A detailed history of potential contributing factors should be examined. The most difficult headache patients to treat are those taking narcotics, or are heavily medicated with pharmaceuticals. It becomes a battle of trying to balance the patient’s energy while dealing with the drug’s effects and withdrawal from the drugs.
The initial treatment of headache includes encouraging the patient to guide their attention away from the head and focus the flow of their chi to the lower abdominal area by using breathing techniques like Qi Gong or Tai Chi. This exercise is effective for all patients with any type of headache. Patients with headaches caused by a blockage or excess pattern will respond more rapidly than those patients with headaches caused by a deficiency. A closer analysis of headache variations can give us a clue as to the root cause.
Thyroid Type: This type of headache is often dull upon waking in the morning and wears off by late morning. The thyroid is responding to the transition from resting to wakefulness and takes a while to pick up metabolism. Thyroid headaches are usually accompanied by indecisiveness, depression and fatigue with referred pain felt in elbows, wrists and temples. In Chinese medicine, this headache corresponds to a weakness of the Kidney energetic system expressing also with an empty feeling in the head, tiredness and fatigue with weakness in the lower back and knees, ringing in the ears or restless sleep. This pattern is very similar to an Adrenal Type headache listed below.
Liver & Gallbladder Type: Feeling nausea and generally sick is a common sign with this type of headache. Possibly a bitter taste in the mouth, achiness and pains throughout the body, and waking up between the hours of 11pm and 3am with the headache are signs of Liver / gallbladder stagnation. Fats and oils in the diet may be difficult to digest and patients may present with bloating and indigestion. Dizziness, restlessness, insomnia, irritability and a flushed complexion are also symptoms. Referred pain can be felt in the head, neck, and chest or between the shoulder blades but the most prominent location is into the temples or eyes often manifesting as a “migraine.”
Ovarian Type: This type of headache strikes during ovulation and/or menstruation with mood swings, and emotional outbursts, vivid dreams and an empty feeling. This headache is also common among women with surgical hysterectomy as the pituitary attempts to balance estrogen and progesterone now that the ovaries are missing. Referred pain can travel to the thumbs, elbows and TMJ. This type of headache is associated in Oriental medicine as a deficient kidney with false heat signs.
Adrenal & Pituitary Type: Pituitary headaches are random and recurring with no distinct pattern. Often very painful, the headache can occur during the day or night. The patient may feel overpowered, suppressed or constrained with a lack of focus or concentration. Many patients complain of feeling as though there is a tight band or constriction around their head. Adrenal type headaches begin in the late afternoon and are accompanied by decreased stamina, perspire often, have general fatigue, anxiety and exhaustion. Patients usually feel weak or dizzy when getting up and always catch every cold that comes around. This is a usually a pattern of Kidney weakness similar to a thyroid type headache but when the body becomes overtaxed and the immune system is weakened then wind and dampness, wind and cold or wind and heat present as the headache in Oriental medicine. Further investigation will narrow the headache type defined by aggravation by exposure to wind, distending pain with fever, stuffiness in the chest with heaviness of the extremities or an off and on headache made worse by the cold. Unfortunately, your weak adrenals or pituitary just predisposed you to a flu or cold infection.
Low Blood Sugar Type: This type of headache is occurs when a meal is skipped or delayed, and blood sugar levels are allowed to drop. Hypoglycemia is possibly the cause. Eating small snacks of healthy foods throughout the day usually deters these headaches. Feelings of worry, low self-esteem, despair and referred pain to the face, TMF, upper neck and big toe are common. This pattern fits a Chinese medical diagnosis of chi and blood deficiency that would also include potential palpitations, fatigue, pale complexion and dizziness.
Heart Weakness Type: Very similar to Low Blood Sugar type, this headache is tied into a more serious disorder presenting with low blood pressure, gasping for air, weakness upon exertion, chest pain and tiring quickly after awakening. The headache begins after exertion and is associated with feelings of anxiety, poor memory, and cloudy-headedness. Referred pain can be felt in the chest and arms and is typical for cardiac failure. The Chinese believe that if yang chi (vital life force) begins to fail in the Kidneys (water organ) or this chi has been exhausted, the natural progression of the disease will attack the Heart (fire organ). Metaphorically speaking; “the water puts the fire out”. Seeking treatment with Acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine early can restore balance quickly before hospitalization or drugs become a life-saving necessity.
Environmental Allergy & Sensitivity Type: Today, more than ever patients are exposed to man-made chemicals and toxins that can range from agricultural pesticides and fertilizers to the synthetic fabrics paints and carpets in homes. The liver, lymphatic, circulatory and nervous systems become overburdened from these toxins producing a variety of headaches. Controlling the air environment with negative ion generators and electrostatic filters with good circulation and ventilation and humidity controls can improve neutralization of these toxins. Turbid Phlegm is a term used by Chinese medicine to describe headaches that present with fullness or stuffiness in the chest and gastric regions, dizziness and fatigue.
Trauma Type: Self explanatory with a history of traumatic injury to the head or prolonged chronic illness. Chinese medicine lists these persistent, fixed pain headaches as blood stagnation. If the chi is not moving in the body long enough then the blood becomes stagnant similar to a locomotive (chi) no longer pulling a caboose (blood) along a railroad track. “Blood breaking and moving” Chinese herbal medicine is very effective at resolving these types of headaches.
As you can see, headache differentiation can be challenging due to the variety and mixed complexity of the imbalances. Lifestyle and dietary changes must be a part of the therapy including the avoidance of sugar, alcohol, stimulants, refined carbohydrates and processed hydrogenated oils. Eat more organically grown fresh fruits and vegetables, natural fats and healthy proteins. Use stress relieving exercises such as Qi Gong and get simple transient headaches checked out by a board certified acupuncture physician early to avoid future complications.