Treating Headaches With Classic Chinese Medicine

A face carved in stone with the top of the skull open showing a brain
Natalie Chandra Saunders, BA(Hons)
Natalie Chandra Saunders, BA(Hons)

LicAc graduated from the College of Traditional Acupuncture, UK, with a Batchelor of Arts degree and Licentiate in Acupuncture with further training at Heilongjiang University

Headaches are a common issue, with most people experiencing them from time to time. However, some people suffer from regular headaches, which range from mild to debilitating in severity. This can have a significant impact on their quality of life and ability to function on a daily basis. 

Headaches also have a wide range of causes, with some of them being simpler to treat than others. Standard therapies include painkillers and preventative medicines like triptans for conditions like migraine. These remedies vary in their effectiveness, and some may cause unpleasant side effects, meaning many people are seeking alternatives. 

One popular option that is showing great promise is acupuncture. This article explores the traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) view of headaches, and how acupuncture could help. But first, let’s look at the different types of headaches and their causes according to Western medicine.

Table of Contents

Types of Headaches and Their Causes According to Western Medicine 

There are many different types of headaches. Some of these are described as “primary headaches,” meaning that there are no other underlying medical conditions. Others are described as “secondary headaches,” meaning they occur as a symptom of another issue, such as:

  • Emotional stress
  • Viral infections
  • Sinus problems
  • Hormonal changes
  • Nerve disorders
  • Strokes
  • Tumors
  • Medication side effects
  • Alcohol use

These are just a few of the numerous reasons why someone might experience secondary headaches. In many cases, the headaches can be relieved by treating the root cause

Primary headaches may be more challenging to manage. Some of the most common examples include the following: 

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  • Headaches can be classified as primary or secondary, depending on whether they are a standalone issue or a symptom of another underlying condition.
  • Secondary headaches can be caused by a wide range of factors such as stress, infections, hormonal changes, and medication side effects.
  • Primary headaches, like migraines and tension headaches, can be more difficult to manage and may require specific treatment approaches.

Tension-Type Headaches

Tension-type headaches are among the most common types of headaches. They are the result of muscle tension in the shoulders, neck, scalp, and jaw. They usually affect the forehead, temples, or base of the skull and people describe the pain as tight or constricting, like a rubber band is pressing on their head. 

Tension-type headaches often occur due to stress, as many people tense their muscles when they are stressed. Poor posture or sitting for long periods can also trigger this type of headache. 

Migraines

Migraines are another common type of headache. They are typically more severe than tension-type headaches and may be accompanied by other symptoms such as sensitivity to light and sound, nausea, and vomiting. They usually affect one side of the head and may be most noticeable around the eye area

Some people also experience a phenomenon known as “migraine aura” just before an attack. This can include visual disturbances, such as flashing lights or zigzags, and other sensory changes. Migraines can last from 4–72 hours.

Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches are one of the most severe and debilitating types of headache. They usually affect the area around one eye and the pain is often described as piercing, sharp, or burning. They can also cause other symptoms, such as red, watery eyes and nausea. 

During an active period, cluster headaches can happen daily for weeks or months at a time, with each headache lasting up to three hours. Cluster headaches are notoriously difficult to treat. 

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  • Tension-type headaches result from muscle tension and are often triggered by stress or poor posture.
  • Migraines are more severe than tension-type headaches and can be accompanied by sensitivity to light, sound, and nausea.
  • Cluster headaches are extremely severe and can occur daily for weeks or months at a time.

Types of Headache According to TCM 

TCM views the body very differently from western medicine, and so the causes of headaches are seen differently, too. 

In TCM terms, headaches are often caused by an imbalance between the yin and yang energies of the body. The head is the most yang part of the body, and yang qi tends to rise up toward it. If too much yang qi rises to the head, it can accumulate there and cause headaches, as well as other symptoms like irritability and sensations of Heat in the head. 

Headaches may also occur due to pathogenic factors, such as Wind, Heat, and Cold. They can be classified further according to which channels that are being affected, as determined by where the headaches occur. For example: 

Bladder Channel (Foot Taiyang)

The Bladder channel starts at the inner corner of the eye and rises up over the head before descending down the back and legs to the fifth toe. Therefore, headaches that affect the front of the forehead, the top or back of the head may be attributed to the Bladder channel. 

Gallbladder Channel (Foot Shaoyang)

The Gallbladder channel starts at the outer corner of the eye and zigzags across the sides of the head, over the shoulder and down the sides of the body and legs to the fourth toe. Therefore, headaches affecting the sides of the head may be attributed to the Gallbladder channel, especially if they are accompanied by neck and shoulder tension

The Gallbladder also has a close relationship with the Liver, which is responsible for the smooth flow of qi in the body. Because of this crucial function, the Liver is often implicated in headaches, especially those that affect the area around the eye or cause other symptoms like nausea and vomiting. 

Liver Yang Rising is one of the most common causes of headaches in TCM. However, since the Liver channel does not reach up to the head, it tends to affect the Gallbladder channel instead. 

Large Intestine (Hand Yangming) and Stomach (Foot Yangming)

The Large Intestine channel starts on the index finger and runs up the arm, shoulder, and neck to the face, ending at the outer edges of the nostrils. From here, qi flows into the Stomach channel, which starts beneath the eye and descends down the face and the front of the body and legs to the second toe. 

When the flow of qi between these two channels is interrupted, it can cause headaches that affect the front of the face, which may be accompanied by congestion. This is very similar to what Western medicine would refer to as sinus headaches

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  • In Traditional Chinese Medicine, headaches are often caused by an imbalance between yin and yang energies in the body.
  •  Headaches that affect the front of the forehead, and the top or back of the head are associated with the Foot Taiyang channel.
  • Headaches that affect the front of the forehead, and the top or back of the head are associated with the Foot Shaoyang channel.
  • Sinus headaches are associated to the Yangming channel.
  • Liver Yang Rising is a common cause of headaches in TCM, often affecting the Gallbladder channel.

TCM Treatment Options

Acupuncture has been well-studied for headaches, particularly migraines, with promising results. For example, a 2020 overview of systematic reviews concluded that acupuncture could reduce the frequency and severity of headaches, number of headache days, and painkiller use, and was more effective than Western medicine or sham acupuncture. [1]

Chinese herbal medicine has also been investigated as a treatment for migraines. According to a 2022 systematic review and meta-analysis, it was more effective than placebo for reducing migraine frequency and severity, as well as the number of headache days. [2]

Acupoints for Headache

There are many different acupoints that may be useful for relieving headaches. The best ones for you will depend on the type of headaches you are experiencing, so it is best to see a qualified practitioner for a professional diagnosis and treatment.

However, there are a few different points that are good for headaches in general, and you can try using them with acupressure as a “first aid” treatment when a headache strikes. They include the following:

DU-20 Baihui

Baihui is one of the most important points for regulating yang qi. It is located on the midline of the vertex, the uppermost part of the head. You can find it by imagining a line drawn between the tips of the ears and locating the central point.

Baihui is the meeting point of all the yang channels and is sometimes known as “the Sea of Marrow point,” with the Sea of Marrow being the TCM equivalent to the brain. Its functions include clearing and invigorating the mind and enhancing mental function. It can be helpful for relieving sensations of pressure inside the head and also has calming properties, making it a useful point for emotional disorders.

According to research, this point is most commonly used for its sedative and harmonizing effects, and can be used to treat anxiety, insomnia, headaches, and poor memory [3]. It is often used in combination with Fengchi and Taichong (see below).

GB-20 Fengchi

Fengchi is one of the best acupoints for headaches accompanied by neck and shoulder tension. You can find it by placing your hands in front of your ears and using your thumbs to find two hollows at the base of your skull, between the trapezius and sternocleidomastoid muscles.

This point’s Chinese name means “wind pool” and it is one of the best points for relieving headaches due to Wind, especially those affecting the Gallbladder channel. It is also used to subdue rising yang qi

Research has also shown Fengchi to have several benefits for headaches in Western medical terms, including regulating blood flow, reducing inflammation, and relieving pain.[4]

LIV-3 Taichong

Taichong is one of the most important points on the Liver channel. You can find it on the top of the feet, in a hollow between the bases of the first and second metatarsal bones.

This point is commonly used to regulate the flow of qi and subdue rising Liver yang. It may be useful for headaches associated with stress and irritability, and accompanying symptoms, such as visual disturbances or nausea.

In scientific terms, one study showed that Taichong has a significant impact on cerebral blood flow, which is implicated in the pathology of migraine headaches [5]. Another study found that this point had a 94% effective rate in 35 headache patients, when used in combination with Baihui[6]

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  • Acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine have shown promising results in treating headaches, particularly migraines.
  • There are specific acupoints, such as DU-20 Baihui, GB-20 Fengchi, and LIV-3 Taichong, that can be used for relieving headaches.
  • Research has shown that these acupoints can help regulate blood flow, reduce inflammation, relieve pain, and have calming effects on the mind.

References

1. Li YX, Xiao XL, Zhong DL, Luo LJ, Yang H, Zhou J, He MX, Shi LH, Li J, Zheng H, Jin RJ. Effectiveness and Safety of Acupuncture for Migraine: An Overview of Systematic Reviews. Pain Res Manag. 2020 Mar 23;2020:3825617. doi: 10.1155/2020/3825617. PMID: 32269669; PMCID: PMC7125485.

2. Lyu Shaohua , Zhang Claire Shuiqing , Guo Xinfeng , Zhang Anthony Lin, Sun Jingbo, Chen Genghang, Xue Charlie Changli , Luo Xiaodong. Efficacy and Safety of Oral Chinese Herbal Medicine for Migraine: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analyses Using Robust Variance Estimation Model. Frontiers in Neurology. Vol. 13, 2022. Doi: 10.3389/fneur.2022.889336; ISSN:1664-2295

3. Shen EY, Chen FJ, Chen YY, Lin MF. Locating the Acupoint Baihui (GV20) Beneath the Cerebral Cortex with MRI Reconstructed 3D Neuroimages. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2011;2011:362494. doi: 10.1093/ecam/neq047. Epub 2011 Feb 14. PMID: 21785620; PMCID: PMC3135375.

4. Lu L, Wen Q, Hao X, Zheng Q, Li Y, Li N. Acupoints for Tension-Type Headache: A Literature Study Based on Data Mining Technology. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2021 Mar 12;2021:5567697. doi: 10.1155/2021/5567697. PMID: 33777156; PMCID: PMC7979293.

5. Quirico PE, Allais G, Ferrando M, de Lorenzo C, Burzio C, Bergandi F, Rolando S, Schiapparelli P, Benedetto C. Effects of the acupoints PC 6 Neiguan and LR 3 Taichong on cerebral blood flow in normal subjects and in migraine patients. Neurol Sci. 2014 May;35 Suppl 1:129-33. doi: 10.1007/s10072-014-1754-0. PMID: 24867849.

6. Xiu-mei, L. Treatment of 35 cases of parietal headache with Baihui (GV 20) and Taichong (LR 3). J. Acupunct. Tuina. Sci. 2, 48–49 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02845459

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