TCM View of Headaches

Headaches affect 1 in 6 people. To a chronic headache sufferer, figuring out why they have them can be a challenge. This blog will explore the TCM view of headaches. In TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) headaches can be considered either a disease or a symptom.  When the primary manifestation is headache it is the disease.  When headache is just part of the overall picture it is considered a symptom. An example of this would be having the common cold where headache may be one of many other symptoms such as runny nose, sneezing, slight fever, chills, and body aches. In this case the common cold is the disease.

TCM Causes of Headache

  1. Invasion of external pathogens.  Prior to the discovery of viruses and bacteria early TCM doctors attributed many diseases to environmental “pathogens” such as wind, cold, heat, and damp.  For example “wind-cold invasion” was how they described the cause of a mild common cold. An example of wind as a pathogen is the “Chinook headache” where large atmospheric pressure changes (which cause the headache) are often accompanied by windy weather. 
  2. Emotions. Stress is typically the first thing to pop to mind with this. Strong emotions such as stress and anger can lead to headaches. Other strong emotions that can lead to headaches include: worry, sadness/grief, fear, guilt and shame.
  3. Irregular diet. Many people are away that certain foods can trigger headaches. Trigger foods can include chocolate, wine and other alcohol (especially over consumption), preserved meats, spices, cheese and nuts.  Irregular diet can also include overeating, rushing through a meal or skipping a meal. 
  4. Overwork. Working long hours can lead to the body becoming “run-down” and susceptible to other factors.  Lack of sleep, which often accompanies overwork, has been found to play a role in headaches. This is likely because it is during sleep that the body’s repair mechanisms function the best. 
  5. Trauma. Blows to the head can cause headache as can whiplash injuries to the neck and upper back. 

TCM Diagnosis of Headache

Headaches are diagnosed in TCM from two different perspectives: channel or organ. Diagnosis of headaches based on channel involved usually focuses on the location of the headache. These are forehead, top of head, temples or base of skull & neck. Each of these areas is associated with a different channel. Acupuncture points will then be chosen that affect the region of the head or the channel diagnosed as the “sick” one.

TCM view of headaches
Image by Clara Cohen @ AcuPro Academy

Diagnosis of headaches based on the organ involved usually focuses on the type of pain being experienced. Focus on the organ involvement is often part of digging to the root cause of the headache. Fix the root cause and you won’t get headaches anymore.

TCM Treatment of Headache

On the surface headaches are treated based on where on the head they appear: temples, forehead, base of skull and top of head.  Points are chosen locally in the affected area or distally (on arms and legs) that are know to affect the area of pain. 

TCM also digs deeper to look for the root cause and address that as well. In addition to acupuncture your therapist may suggest diet and lifestyle changes. There are a number of chemical compounds in foods that are thought to be linked to migraines (tyramine, histamine, MSG are a few). Migraine reduction diets can be helpful in getting headaches under control. As mentioned above irregular eating can be a causative factor in the TCM view of headaches. This can include eating at irregular times or skipping meals. Try to maintain a regular schedule for meals and take time to sit down and focus on the meal.

Other lifestyle changes may include avoiding overwork and making sure you get sufficient sleep. Regular exercise can also help. A good cardio session, such as a brisk walk, can improve blood flow and burn off stress.

The goal of treatment is not just symptom relief but to stop the headaches from occurring.  

References

  • Migraine Strong: https://www.migrainestrong.com/heal-your-headache-diet-the-migraine-diet/
  • “The Practice of Chinese Medicine” by Giovanni Maciocia
  • https://acuproacademy.com/tcm-treatment-protocols-migraines-headaches/