Headaches…what a pain those are, right? The next few blogs are going to be all about various holistic treatment approaches for the types of headaches we suffer from. In the conventional world of medicine, treatments are pretty simplistic, you take a pain-killer of choice and hope the headache goes away. While these medications are usually fine for subsiding the headache pain, are they really fixing the problem that is causing your headache? No. The good news is that there are lots of treatment options that can really tackle the root cause of your headaches, while also improving the severity and frequency of your symptoms. This week, we’ll talk about acupuncture.
First, lets get a brief overview on distinguishing the main types of headaches we see.
- Tension Headaches: these are the most common headaches and are often associated with stress and tension. They generally feel like a tight band around the head, and are mild to moderate in pain; however, these headaches can produce severe pain. Many people automatically associate a REALLY BAD HEADACHE with a migraine, so it’s important to understand that tension headaches can be terrible as well because tension headaches and migraines are treated differently.
- Migraine Headaches: these are less common and are predominately caused by rebound over-dilation of an artery in the head (often the temporal artery) as a response to vaso-constriction caused by the stress response. These arteries are wrapped with pain receptors that become stretched when the artery is over-dilated, resulting in intense throbbing pain. They are sometimes accompanied by visual disturbances (aura), nausea, and vomiting. The aura is a result of pressure being placed on the ocular nerve as a result over the over-dilated blood vessel and sometimes will occur without any pain, these are called “ocular migraines”
- Other: There are lots of other circumstances where a headache is more of a “side effect” of other underlying conditions. Such conditions can include: allergies/sinus infections, blood pressure changes, hormonal imbalances, insomnia, and more.
The TCM Approach to Headaches
TCM has a very effective framework for diagnosing and treating all kinds of headaches; the best part being that TCM can alleviate headache pain while also correcting the problem that’s causing the headaches. Additionally, TCM has virtually no side effects, making it not only safe but also incredibly beneficial for long-term use.
Harmonizing Blood Flow
The first thing that acupuncture does for alleviating headaches is restoring healthy blood flow; in TCM terms, we refer to this as “alleviating Qi and blood stagnation”. Anytime a needle is inserted into the body, small vessels around the needle dilate. You see, while migraine pain is due to over-dilation, the original cause is vaso-constriction from the stress response. The constricted blood vessels undergo “rebound dilation” in response to the lack of blood supply.
If a patient comes in with recurring migraines, but is not currently having a migraine, inserting needles around the head and neck can harmonize vessel constriction/dilation thereby preventing migraines from occurring all together. If the patient comes in with an active migraine, needling distally will dilate the distal blood vessels, thereby drawing excess blood flow away from the head and needling locally is usually not advisable. Once the migraine is corrected, the preventative treatments can resume.
With tension headaches, needling locally is almost always beneficial, but distal points are frequently used since specific acupuncture points work systemically for certain types of pain. Muscle tension and pain is almost always due to a combination of acute injury, accumulation of small tears (micro traumas), poor posture, and poor oxygenation. Oxygen is delivered to muscles via blood. If we can increase blood flow to the painful area, muscles become oxygenated and nourished thereby allowing them to heal and relax.
If there is anything that acupuncture is known for, it’s pain relief, and headaches are no exception. The process is simple…inserting an acupuncture needle into an affected area causes a “micro trauma”. This leads to a cascade of events that directs blood to the area so tissue remodeling can occur to heal any unresolved injuries; additionally, it also signals the brain to release enkephaline and other endorphins, which diminish the experience of pain. Various distal points are used for their systemic benefits for restoring healthy flow of Qi throughout the entire body.
However, I feel it’s important to stress that there are some cases where you’re just going to want to take a pain alleviating medication; sometimes the pain is just too severe to wait for an appointment. Just be sure to follow your dosage instructions precisely.
As it’s been alluded to so far in this blog, one of the major causative factors in all types of headaches is stress. Stress all boils down to an overactive sympathetic nervous system (SNS), an aspect of our nervous system that prepares us to fight or flee a dangerous situation. In short bursts, the SNS is not harmful; the problem is many of us are locked in an SNS response because we’re so stressed out all the time, and our nervous system doesn’t distinguish between a work deadline or being chased by a bear. The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is the SNS’s opposing system that allows our bodies to rest and repair after a stressful event. Acupuncture is a great mechanism for subduing the SNS and activating the PNS thereby improving a sense of peace, relaxation, and wellbeing.
Alleviating Other Medical Conditions Causing Headaches
As we mentioned above, many headaches are more side effects of other health conditions. Acupuncture is a great treatment modality for many of these “headache causing” conditions whether it’s digestive complaints, unstable blood pressure, allergies, or sinus problems.
BOTTOM LINE: Acupuncture is an incredibly effective and safe choice for treating headaches. It does so by regulating blood flow, reducing pain, alleviating tension, balancing the nervous system, and calming the mind. Ditch your medications (unless you REALLY need it) and start the path to correcting the pattern all together!