Rare is the person who has never had a headache. They affect millions of people every year and for some people they are a daily challenge to deal with. Headaches are one of the most common complaints I hear in my Asian medicine and Holistic Nutrition practice. According to WHO (World Health Organization) about half of the adults in America will have a headache each year – and many of those suffer headaches repeatedly.
As with other disharmonies, Asian (Chinese) medicine’s approach to headaches is different from western medicine’s. Asian medicine practitioners focus on the treating the acute by relieving the pain and working to find the root patterns causing the headaches. Yes, you read that as a plural – headaches. Most headache sufferers are prone to several different types of headaches – ouch.
Assessing and treating headaches in Asian medicine
First, a detailed Asian medicine assessment is made through review of medical records, western diagnosis, medicines, history, inquiry regarding pain, duration, possible triggers, and location of pain. Tongue and pulse assessment reveal an incredible amount of information, especially if they can be taken both during a headache and when the client isn’t suffering from a headache. I should note, if a client comes in extreme pain, inquiry may have to be very brief so that treatment can begin as soon as possible. Treatments include the manipulation of acupressure/acupuncture points, additional techniques such as gua sha and cupping along with herbal and nutritional recommendations. The duration of treatment varies depending on underlying patterns and the patient’s tolerance at time of treatment. This is often confusing for many clients who may just want the situation resolved. However, most headaches are often part of complex patterns that take time to unravel.
My purpose with this blog is to give an overview of the patterns according to Asian medicine that can lead to headaches. Covering the western causes and assessment would make for a very cumbersome blog, instead I will drop in little side notes where the western and Asian medicine meet.
Causes of headaches according to Asian (Chinese) medicine
There are many different patterns that cause headaches in Asian medicine. Let’s take a quick look – this is just an overview so I don’t give you a headache.
Exterior Pattern Headaches
Wind/Cold – Tight and gripping, often creeping up the neck and tightening and causing severe pain in the occiput. The headache you get after being out in the cold and wind to watch a game or by sitting by an draft. This could also be a common cold headache when chills are dominate and there is no fever.
Wind/Heat – Duller than a wind/cold headache. It can feel like a tight band on the head. You played in the sun too long or you’re catching a cold that is dominated by heat and fever.
Wind/Damp – Predicting weather changes? Wind/damp headaches create a heavy, muzzy and murky feeling in the head that often comes up with barometric pressure changes. They improve once the storm breaks or the weather clears but as with all damp patterns they are particularly tenacious and often take longer to treat.
Blood stasis caused by injury – That headache you got after the car wreck. Can show up at the injury site or across the head. Pain from stagnation is fixed and stabs like little needles. Sometimes these headaches manifest right after the injury, however, if the area of injury isn’t well treated it’s not uncommon for these headaches to reappear – even years later.
Wind & Toxins – Inversions, smog, smoke and toxins…so we can add toxin to wind heat and damp. It travels along the Gallbladder channel, wrapping around the ears and temples. Ouch!
Interior Pattern headaches
Excess Pattern Headaches – these arise because there is too much of something (Qi, Blood, Fluid, Dampness) in a channel or system. We get a pressure effect.
Liver Yang Rising – Red eyes, ringing in the ears, sharp, stabbing pain. These headaches are often unilateral (one sided). They like to pop up after you’ve gotten really ticked off, excited or frustrated. We see them a lot in the spring when tempers rise.
Liver Fire – Like above, only worse and more volatile. Often unilateral. Migraines are examples of Liver Fire Headaches.
Liver Wind – Sharp stabbing pain that is moving, usually along the Gall Bladder channel and the temples on the head. Seen in Epilepsy, Bell’s Palsy and cluster headaches.
Stagnation of Cold in Liver – Stabbing, tight and constricting, improves with warmth added to the abdomen or Liver points on the feet.
Damp – Muzzy, dull, heavy and sinking feeling. Often stirred up when the weather changes or you eat very phlegm forming foods.
Phlegm – Nagging and persistent, phlegm must be transformed and drained out of the body. Clients often feel that their head is full and heavy. The pulse and tongue will reveal accumulation of phlegm. These headaches often accompany patterns like allergies, asthma, MS and fibromyalgia. Phlegm can be particularly nagging and difficult to break up and move out. Moist air, steaming or neti potting will help. If the phlegm is too dense and congealed, literally too dry, it won’t move out of your sinuses, lungs and throat. By adding more moisture, like thinning out gravy, we make the phlegm thin enough that the body can more successfully move it out. Unfortunately, many of the over the counter medicines for sinus have a nasty habit of draining moisture and thickening the phlegm in the long run.
Phlegm wind – Similar to above, except the headache may move and is often aggravated by windy conditions.
Retention of food – Food is sitting in your stomach. Causes a pressure headache behind the eyes (the Stomach channel begins below the eyes) and on the forehead. These headaches may plague those with very compromised digestive systems, those who eat hurriedly, overeat or indulge in too many rich foods.
Stasis of blood – Stabbing and persistent in nature. Some women may get these prior or during their cycle when the blood is trying to circulate properly. The tongue will have a purple hue.
Stomach heat – Throbbing and intense, felt in the forehead and behind the eyes, possibly to the top of the head. Often felt by those who have GERD, acid reflux, IBS or Crohn’s disease.
Deficiency Pattern Headaches
Qi Deficiency – dull and aching, can creep up the neck and cover the head. Improves quickly with rest. This is the teenager who just need a nap to recharge.
Blood Deficiency – dull and aching, covers the whole head. Feels better with pressure and rest. Women may get these headaches after their menstrual cycle if they bled too heavily or didn’t replenish blood properly. Undernourishment can also lead to these headaches. Long term chronic illness can also lead to these types of Blood deficiency headaches.
Yin Deficiency – Dull, aching and nagging. They are accompanied by sensation of heat in the chest or hot flashes and thirst. This is a more severe deficiency and the headaches can sometimes last for days. These may also show up for women during menopause or for those who are on heavy medical treatments that deplete yin.
Jing Deficiency – Ever wonder why one child in the family is vital and strong and one is weak and deficient? They were born with it, and it is a direct indicator of the parent’s health at the time of conception. Often overlooked or not readily understood in western medicine, Asian medicine places heavy emphasis on the parent’s general health, at the time of conception and the mother’s health during pregnancy. It’s the child’s blue prints and parents can only offer what they have available. If the parents are ill, overworked, over or under-exercising, eating inappropriately, using excess drugs or alcohol it will have an outcome on the child’s health. After conception, the mother’s Jing (essence) supports the baby through pregnancy. Shock, trauma, excess exercise, overwork, excess sex, emotional upsets and inappropriate diet all impact the unborn child and in certain conditions can lead to health problems later in life. The headaches may show up early in childhood and are often of a deficient nature, being dull and nagging. They improve with rest and adequate nutrition.
Enough types of headaches? Likely. However, please remember it is very common for those who suffer headaches to suffer from one or more type of headache. For example many migraine sufferers may have Qi deficiency or tension headaches in between attacks. A woman may have a blood deficiency headache after her period, may suffer a Liver Qi Stagnation headache before her cycle.
A few recommendations for headaches.
This is a tough one, because to effectively treat headaches we need to pin point the pattern, luckily there are a few tricks that can benefit almost any headache type.
Feel your ears and forehead – yes, really. If they are cold, cover your head with a hat and warm up your neck and toes. If you are hot, drink mint tea. Strong peppermint tea…none of the this essence of mint flavor.
Cover your neck – if your neck muscles tighten and contract, it will obstruct the Qi and blood flow to your head making a headache worse. Get out those scarves. If your neck is tight use kudzu and follow recommendations for wind.
Clear congestion – Patterns with dampness or congestion will feel better when the sinuses are cleared up. Think onions, radishes and citrus peel.
Use lavender – A magnificent regulator
Get quiet and relax – Get away from noise and excessive light, close your eyes. Get in out of the cold and try to settle down. Maybe some lovely meditation or quiet music.
Caffeine – Yep, it can have medicinal purposes, and can be helpful for those who don’t normally indulge in caffeine. We aren’t working on creating a habit here, just handling an acute situation.
Steam or use a vaporizer or nebulizer. Dry climates and environments can lead to headaches that are caused by too much dryness in your sinuses. Breathing warm, moist air will help, even if that’s just placing a damp cloth over your sinuses for a while.
If you are predisposed to headaches get in for Amma and to find the root patterns and set up appropriate herbal and nutritional recommendations.
Here’s to a headache free world.