Traditional Chinese Medicine for Headache

NIH and Duke University Findings

NIH (National Institute of Health) recommended acupuncture as a viable treatment for chronic headache a decade ago.  In 2008, research in Duke University with near 4000 patients who reported migraines, tension headaches, and other forms of headaches comparing acupuncture to medication, researchers found that 62% of the acupuncture patients reported headache relief compared to only 45% of people taking medication. – click here to read more

Headache is a very common complaint.

It has been estimated that about 45 million Americans (1 in 6) are affected by severe headache and the prevalence is on the rise.  Headache may be post traumatic, or it may be due to eyestrain, sinus problems, TMJ, etc.  But, usually there is no organic cause to explain why headache occur.

We commonly attribute it to stress or tension, or vascular/migraine headache in which case there is initial vasoconstriction followed by vasodilatation of cranial blood vessels.  Radiographic imagery usually fails to reveal any abnormality.  Commonly used drugs include Beta and Calcium channel blockers or vasoconstrictors such as Midrin, Imitrex, Ralpax.  Some patients also benefit from Neurontin and Topamax.  Many get good relief, some however experience significant side effects, predominantly fatigue and drowsiness.

One may then ask the question: what other treatment modalities are available in complementary alternative medicine? It has been commented by many experts that headache is a manifestation of an underlying problem.  Very frequently, those with severe and chronic headache do suffer from some form of energy imbalance.  As a result of this underlying energy issue, there are many other symptoms such as insomnia, anxiety, irritability, fatigue, digestive problems or menstrual cramps, just to name a few.

Headache / Migraine in Chinese Medicine

From the standpoint of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), management of headache can be quite complex and interesting, taking into consideration one’s energy constitution or conformation.  To begin with, the location of headache is an important guide to acupuncture as well as herbal therapy.  Frontal headache is referred to the Yang Ming headache and it is usually associated with energy blockage or imbalance in the stomach and spleen channels.  These patients often have sinus symptoms, dizziness or vertigo or stomach complaints.  Headache over the temples and surrounding the ears is referred to Shao Yang headache and is related to the Liver and Gallbladder channels.  Associated manifestations include, anxiety, irritability, insomnia, characterized by frequent awakening during sleep, a bitter taste in the mouth, a fullness feeling in the lower rib cage, etc.  Yet, another type of headache affecting the occipital region or the back of the head with radiation along the midline to the inner corner of the eyes is the so-called urinary bladder headache.  Please note that the organ names given to different types of headache do not necessarily imply any disease in the corresponding organs.  They simply refer to the energy channels or meridians going through the affected areas of the head.  For example, a person with the liver and gall bladder type headache most likely has nothing wrong with either the liver or the gall bladder.

Other body conditions are useful guides in making a recommendation on herbal remedy.  For instance, do you feel very cold or very warm?  Is there associated nausea, dizziness and or vertigo,  a lot of sinus drainage and phlegm? Constipated? In other words, TCM truly takes a holistic approach, rather than just focusing on the head.

When treatment is effective, not only the headache subsides, there is also improved general sense of well being.  Needless to say one needs to consult an experienced, well trained practitioner in TCM.


Dr. Peter Sheng
Cincinnati Acupuncture, Chinese Herbal Therapy, Integrative Medicine & Holistic Health Care