Acupuncture is a traditional Chinese medicine treatment that has been practiced around the world for several thousand years. It has been used to successfully disorders ranging from infertility to joint pain. Across the United States, cutting-edge medical institutions now offer acupuncture in conjunction with their conventional Western medical treatments. It has been proven that acupuncture is effective in relieving many debilitating conditions, including headaches and migraines.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), 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 no negative side effects, and the procedures for treating headaches are minimally invasive. In Chinese Medicine, headaches are considered a ‘disease’ with many different possible root causes. During the consultation process, a variety of factors are considered to determine if the condition is related to something coming from within the body or outside of the body. When do the headaches occur? Do certain foods trigger the headaches? Are they worse with weather changes? Do they spike with high stress levels or when experiencing other emotions?
There are a plethora of symptoms that can be used to help to ascertain the underlying cause of a headache or migraine. The intensity and location of the pain, as well as the time of day the headaches occur are all factors that give insight into why they originate. Is your headache pain worse in your temples? The top of the head? Behind your eyes? The back of the head? Is the pain dull or sharp? Throbbing or more of an ache? Does bright light make your headache worse? Do you experience nausea during your headache? Is it worse in the morning or at the end of the day? Are your headaches triggered at a particular time of the month?
The answers to these questions will help the acupuncturist to determine the right course of treatment for each individual patient. Two patients with similar symptoms might end up getting very different treatment plans. Each highly individualized treatment plan is formulated to treat the whole person and not just their symptoms.
Depending on which symptoms are at the root of the headache, the acupuncture points will vary. Typically, acupuncture points are at or near the area of pain (local points). Distal points, points far away from the head and on the hands and feet, are also common. Often these points actually have a more powerful effect that those on the head itself. In the case of migraine headaches, it is common to use points in the lower body to help draw chi (energy) downwards away from the head.
Migraine pain is thought to be associated with the dilation of blood vessels in the head, increasing circulation in the head may worsen symptoms. For this reason, knowledgeable acupuncturists avoid insertion points in the head, neck and upper body, inserting needles only into points on the lower body. To further minimize the dilation of blood vessels in the head, this procedure is performed with the patient in a reclining position, instead of lying face down. By restoring balance in the circulation of chi and blood, the body is able to come back into a state of equilibrium and good health.
Emotional stress is a well-known trigger for migraines. People living fast-paced, stressful lives tend to have imbalanced autonomic nervous systems. The related state (parasympathetic) branch is inhibited, and the stressed state (sympathetic branch) is heightened. This type of imbalance may lead to other health conditions such as insomnia, heart disease, and hypertension.
Acupuncture treatment for headache prevention focuses on stress reduction. When acupuncture needles are inserted into the acupuncture points, the body responds by releasing endorphins and other neurotransmitters that activate the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest and digest branch of our autonomic nervous system) which relaxes muscles, smooths blood flow and accelerates healing. Simultaneously, the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) is deactivated. The needles are placed into insertion points on the forearms and lower legs to increase blood flow to sore and tense muscles. The goal is to reduce tension in the neck and upper back.This greatly eases the muscular tension and stagnation of blood that may be contributing to the occurrence of migraines.