One of the most frequent questions I get as an acupuncturist is whether or not acupuncture can effectively treat migraines. The person asking is either plagued by the headaches themselves, or someone they know and love gets migraines.
I have treated many patients who suffer from headaches, but migraines are in a league all of their own. Chronic headaches can lay you out and make you miserable, but the intense pain and accompanying symptoms associated with a migraine can send you to the emergency room.
Most typical migraines move through stages, but not always. In some cases, you may get an early stage sign, but not develop the actual headache, or the stages may be different depending on the severity of the headache. The common stages of a migraine are:
-The Prodromal stage, during which you don’t have a headache, but feel uneasy, tired, irritable, or crave certain foods.
-The Aura stage occurs up to an hour before your headache starts. It tends to include vision problems, such as blind spots in your vision, flashing, and blurring. You may also feel a bit confused or have difficulty speaking.
-The Headache, which can last hours or even days. The pain can be severe and may affect only one side of your head (but can affect both). Other symptoms that may occur during this stage include a sensitivity to light or sounds, nausea, and feeling feverish or cold.
-Postdrome is the period of time after your headache is gone, but it leaves you feeling pretty washed out. You may feel fatigued or achy. Some people would describe this stage as a shadow of the headache. The pain is gone, but you know it was there.
If you suffer from migraines and turn to acupuncture for relief, the first thing your practitioner must do is to determine the pattern, or underlying cause, of your headaches according to Chinese medicine. There are several patterns that can cause headaches, but in most cases two are most commonly associated with migraines.
The first pattern is related to your Chinese Liver, which is tasked with regulating the smooth flow of every system in your body, from digestion, to the circulation of blood, and even keeping your emotions steady. Ideally, the movement of energy in your body is gently upward, like the sap in a tree that slowly and steadily ascends. However, when that energy rushes upward all at once unchecked, it can cause a migraine. This is called a Liver headache in Chinese medicine, and can be pretty severe and is often one-sided. There are a number of triggers for this kind of headache, but in many cases stress, anger, or very strong emotions are the underlying cause.
Because the energy rushing toward your head in a Liver headache is frequently hot, you may have heat-related symptoms with this kind of a headache. Those symptoms may include feeling feverish or having a hot head, thirst, irritability, dizziness, and even nausea. Needless to say, this kind of headache is no picnic!
A second pattern in Chinese medicine that causes migraines is something called Blood stagnation. This simply means that the flow of blood is constrained in the area that is causing you pain, and in the case of migraines is usually caused by the constriction of blood vessels in your head. With this kind of headache, you may have a variety of symptoms, but will usually have a couple of things in common. First, the pain will be extreme, it will be stabbing in nature, and it will be in a fixed location. In many cases, people suffering from this kind of headache can point to the one spot where the headache began—and usually that point is where their headaches always begin. While the pain may originate at one small point, it will frequently spread and cause a monster of a headache.
Many people want to know if acupuncture and Chinese medicine can help their migraines, and the answer in most cases is yes. If you choose to go the Chinese medicine route, your practitioner will first spend some time with you determining the cause, or pattern, behind your headaches. He or she will then use acupuncture and frequently other therapies to effectively reduce the incidence and severity of your migraines. Other healing strategies may include Chinese herbs, dietary therapy, and lifestyle adjustments.
It’s important to try to understand what is triggering your headaches, such as specific foods, weather, low blood sugar, dehydration, scents, drinking alcohol, and poor sleep. In addition, it’s crucial to understand the role of stress and strong emotions as a trigger. A good way to try to understand what factors are in place that cause your headaches is to keep a headache journal. Keeping track of things like what you’ve eaten, when the headaches typically occur, what you were doing, and the weather—all of which can help you get a handle on patterns. Keep in mind that for many people, migraines occur only after a combination of factors, such as lack of sleep, dehydration, and stress—where any of those factors alone wouldn’t cause a headache.
A few self-care tips for migraines include:
Get some rest. Some people try to muscle their way through a bad headache. This only makes it worse.
If you’re feverish or your head feels hot, apply some ice wrapped in a towel to your head.
Try to stay hydrated. If your stomach is upset, suck on some ice chips.
Unplug from everything. Get away from noisy areas and bright lights. Go inside, turn off the lights, and close the curtains.
Try a little caffeine. Coffee, tea, or soft drinks that contain caffeine may help decrease your migraine pain.
Don’t rule out medications. It’s unrealistic to try to endure an excruciating migraine without medication. In Western medicine, the recommended protocol would be to start with analgesics that you can buy at the store (aspirin, acetaminophen, ibuprofen), and if that doesn’t work bump up to a migraine medication that has been prescribed by your doctor.
Give Chinese medicine a try. It may be the long-term answer to your migraines that you’ve been looking for.