Relieving Headaches with Traditional Chinese Medicine

Both western medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine recognize two categories of headaches: primary and secondary. A primary headache is a clinical condition, not a symptom of another disorder. Primary headaches include tension headaches, migraines and cluster headaches. Secondary headaches are caused by other medical conditions such as sinus disease, allergies, dental disorders, head injury or brain tumors. Acupuncture is used to effectively treat primary headaches, namely tension and migraine, which are the most common.

Types of Headaches

There are a variety of different types of headaches, both primary and secondary. These include the following:

Tension Headaches
HeadacheTension headaches, which occasionally affect most people, are the most common type of headache. They are recurrent headaches, and can last anywhere from minutes to days. These headaches are experienced as a dull pressure, mild or moderate in severity.

Migraine headaches are usually one-sided, pulsating or throbbing, and moderate or severe in intensity. They can be worsened with activity and may be associated with nausea and/or vomiting, as well as sensitivity to light or noise. Some patients also experience auras, a neurological symptom that develops gradually over 5-20 minutes. The patient may see brief flashes or waves of light, or changes in their vision. Other common features of auras include vertigo, imbalance, confusion and numbness.

Chronic Headache
Headaches occurring every day or almost every day are referred to as chronic daily headaches or rebound headaches. Sometimes they resemble tension headaches, and at other times, migraines. The overuse of pain medications can result in aggravating headache patterns.

Dangerous Headaches
Some headaches may be signs of a serious medical condition. These include headaches after trauma, headaches in the elderly, or headaches with any of the following symptoms:

  • Vomiting without nausea
  • Severe dizziness
  • Fever
  • Extreme neck pain
  • Sudden onset
  • Hypertension

The Autonomic Nervous System and Headaches

The functioning of all of our internal organs is regulated by an involuntary nervous system known as the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS has two primary divisions: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for activating the "fight or flight" response characteristically engaged in stressful situations. The parasympathetic system opposes this response by activating the restful state and causing the relaxation response. Prolonged periods of stress can induce a chronic state of hyper-sympathetic activity and/or suppressed parasympathetic response results as the body gradually shifts to an increased sympathetic response. Such a state can lead to neck and upper back rigidity and stiffness, heaviness behind the eyes, and tension headaches, as well as anxiety, irritability, and digestive problems such as bloating and constipation.

To understand headache pain, it is important to understand that during a chronically sympathetic-dominant state, constriction of the blood vessels (vasoconstriction) minimizes circulation - including circulation to the brain. The internal branch of the carotid artery passes through an opening in the skull and becomes a major source of blood for the brain. When vasoconstriction becomes excessive, the body responds by releasing specific neurotransmitters, sometimes referred to as neurokinins, causing "rebound dilation" in the constricted arteries - a natural defense mechanism our bodies use to compensate for blood deprivation. Rebound dilation in turn produces a state of over-dilation in the affected segments of the arteries. These arteries are wrapped with pain receptors. Over-dilation causes these receptors to be stretched, resulting in the intense pain and throbbing of a migraine. The pain is localized because of the limited area of over-dilation, while the throbbing results because each time the heart pumps blood into the artery, the artery expands. When the heart rests, the artery partially constricts which relieves the pain.

Migraines as a Healing Reaction

Because rebound dilation, as described above, occurs as a natural response to the deprivation of blood to the brain, scientists have begun to view migraines as a part of the healing process. The theory explains many unique characteristics of migraine attacks, which often develop when one is relieved from a situation of prolonged stress - such as on weekends, the first day of vacation, following a relaxing dinner at the end of a stressful day, or after sleeping in on Sunday mornings. Physiologically, this is when the body shifts from an increased sympathetic state to a rebound parasympathetic elevation state.

Many sufferers experience some of their most intense migraines following massage treatment. This is not surprising considering that massage and other natural therapies, including acupuncture, trigger the healing reaction by eliciting a relaxation response and enhancing circulation.

The Treatment of Headaches
in Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has an effective, philosophically based framework for headache etiology, pathophysiology, diagnosis and treatment. Specifically, acupuncture has been used to treat headaches for thousands of years. The greatest advantage of acupuncture over western medicine is that it does virtually no harm. Unlike synthetic drugs, acupuncture has virtually no side effects, and the procedures for treating headaches are much less invasive.

Acupuncture for Migraine Relief

Acupuncture involves the insertion of fine needles into specific points on the body, followed by gentle manual or electrical stimulation of the needles. Blood flow in the tissues increases when small vessels around the area of the needle dilate. While actions designed to increase circulation are generally an excellent treatment for pain, such a treatment is not beneficial in the treatment of migraines. Because the pain of a migraine may be associated with the dilation of blood vessels in the head, increasing circulation in this area can worsen the patient's symptoms. At New York AcuHealth, we utilize a unique approach to the treatment of migraine attacks. By avoiding points in the head, neck and upper body, and instead using points exclusively in the lower body, we avoid dilating the blood vessels of the head. The entire treatment is often performed with the patient in a recumbent position rather than in a prone position. This also minimizes dilation of the blood vessels during acupuncture.

Acupuncture for Migraine Prevention

Emotional stress is a well-known trigger for migraines. People living in a fast-paced city like New York tend to have imbalanced autonomic nervous systems. The parasympathetic (relaxed state) branch is inhibited, and the sympathetic branch (stressed state) is activated. This type of imbalance may be tied to other health conditions such as heart disease, insomnia, hypertension and premenstrual syndrome.

The acupuncture technique used at New York AcuHealth helps to prevent migraines by activating the parasympathetic nervous system and decreasing muscle tension. Acupuncture points for this technique are usually chosen on the forearms and lower legs.

Increased muscle tension in the neck and upper back is common in people with migraines; therefore reducing this tension is an integral part of preventing migraines. By finding and treating the most reactive of the 24 major diagnostic points, we can affect an instantaneous increase in blood flow to sore and tense muscles. A low-frequency electrical current (1 Hz) may be added to the needles in order to further enhance blood flow in the muscle tissue.

We also recommend some important lifestyle changes to reduce the incidence of headaches:

  • Sleep adequately (7-8 hours per day)
  • Avoid physical or mental fatigue
  • Avoid alcohol (especially red wine)
  • Avoid caffeine
  • Eliminate foods that trigger migraines: dairy, chocolate, spices, wheat and corn
  • Avoid any triggers that cause your headaches

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