They come with a flash of light, the sharp crack of an unexpected noise, or the “one more thing” of accumulated stress. Like losing your balance on glassy-slick ice migraine headaches are obtrusive visitors that barge in with changes in the weather, tidal shifts of hormones and moments when the levels of stress revs past our capacity to adapt. Those who suffer these intrusions, often seek the comfort of a cool, quiet, dark room to shield themselves from the storm raging in their head. Perhaps not so strangely migraines in Chinese medicine are viewed as an affliction due to â€œinternal wind,â€ a term I thought quaint when I was in acupuncture school. But, later in practice I have come to see that many times stormy weather does indeed trigger an episode, and many of my patients with migraines have pronounced dislike of wind, windy days and barometric fluctuations.
There are plenty of resources that discuss migraine headaches, and you can click here, here, or over there for some good Western medicine information. But, if the usual treatments for the pain, visual disturbances, overall post-headache malaise, or the side effects of pharmaceutical medication for migraines leave you weary and unfocused, then read on for the Chinese medicine view of treating this what seems like a Sisyphean condition.
Migraines in Chinese medicine are seen as being the result of imbalances between a number of organ systems. Treatment focuses both on identifying which organs are involved, thus allowing the practitioner to treat the root of the issue, and at the same time work to provide symptomatic relief. Acupuncture is especially helpful for the latter, while herbs, over the long term, can get at shifting the root causes of the headaches.
Yes, but just what herbs treat the problem and if they are so helpful then why are they not widely available in places like Whole Foods or other places that sell supplements?
Chinese medicine's greatest strength is also its greatest frustration. There are no simple answers, and there is no one size fits all solution. Headaches, or for that matter, menstrual disorders, acid reflux, insomnia or any of the plethora of issues that for which people seek an acupuncturist, are not the result of lack of a certain herb. Here in the West we figure that “headache = aspirin,” “menstrual pain = Motrin,” or “acid reflux = Prilosec,” In fact, because each of us is unique and individual, one person's migraine headache will be treated quite differently from another's. While there are often many commonalities between those suffering migraines, there are also some important differences, and paying attention to those differences makes all the difference! And as one size does not fit all– it is not so easy to find Chinese herbs for headaches in your local supplement store.
OK, so just how is it that those cat whisker thin needles can change how my head feels?
This gets into the larger question of how acupuncture works. Which is beautifully explained through the paradigm of Chinese science and philosophy, unfortunately those explanations are unsatisfying to the Western mind. In a nutshell, it comes down to this- there are points of influence at certain locations on the body, these “acu-points” have a profound effect on the parasympathetic nervous system. Meaning that it quickly and effectively reverses the “fight or flight” response that is triggered by stress. Acupuncture strongly promotes the relaxation response, shifts the hormonal flux in the body, loosens tight muscles, and in general has a regulating and balancing effect on the body, mind and spirit.
How long until I see results? Will I have to do acupuncture for the rest of my life?
As with any medical treatment your mileage may vary. Everyone is different. Some people start to experience changes right away, for others it takes 5-7 treatments to see a noticeable effect. Fewer headaches, longer intervals between them, or less intensity are the kinds of changes to expect.
As to how long you will need treatment. Generally speaking, if you do not have a long history of headaches, then they should clear up rather quickly. Should you have a long history of headaches, then it usually takes more time to see a therapeutic effect.
As to needing treatment for the rest of your life. Even without acupuncture, you likely are already on the path of taking drugs for the rest of your life. Regular treatments can help you to live with less medication and fewer headaches. It's a choice- drugs or more natural methods. The good thing about acupuncture is that it also works on the root of the problem, so over time you should need fewer treatments, and not taking drugs is also a plus.
What if my headaches are “hormonal?”
No problem, Chinese medicine can work wonders with women's health. In fact, painful or irregular menstrual cycles often see improvement when you use acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine to treat your headaches.
Will I have to make lifestyle changes to get better?
You might. Especially if you know there are certain triggers, have a predilection for pointy or high heeled shoes, or if certain habits are pretty much guaranteed to bloom into a headache. Again, over time with treatment these triggers can become less sensitive, but it does take time. And it helps if you can make lifestyle changes that add less stress your system.
A simple stretch to loosen the neck and shoulders
For those of you that have extreme tightness in the back of the head and neck, this simple stretch can help to release those locked down muscles that come with migraine headaches. This simple and effective stretch comes from the book Dr. Fulford's Touch of Life: The Healing Power of the Natural Life Force. Robert Fulford was one of the leading old osteopaths of the last century he recommended a number of daily stretches that helped to promote health. This one in particular is helpful for those who have intense sensitivity at the back of their heads along the occipital ridge.
Place your hands behind your head, and while keeping your head absolutely straight; apply pressure simultaneously from the head to the hands, and the hands to the head. Hold this for a few breaths.
Now, push the head forward with the hand and use the head to resist that push. This move stretches the muscles in the back of the neck, frees the circulation and stimulates the brain. Do this move five times, holding the stretch for a few seconds each time.
By the way, this stretch is not only good for migraine sufferers; it also is of great benefit to anyone that spends lots of time at the computer, or behind the wheel of a car.
Choose to make a difference in your health
Chronic migraine headaches can be treated symptomatically with pharmaceutical medication, but those drugs do not get to the root of the issue. Chinese medicine works on both the “root and branch” of your condition, thus over time can help to change the frequency, interval and intensity of headaches. While acupuncture and herbs seem exotic and at times can have profound effects, they are not magic. If you are expecting a few treatments to cure 20 years of habitual headaches, then you might want to look elsewhere. However, if you want to tap into the innate healing potential of your own body/mind, and cultivate your health much as you would cultivate a garden or an orchard, then have a conversation with your local acupuncturist, especially one who is also well experienced with herbs.