It’s estimated that 13% of adult Americans suffer from migraines, while tension-type headaches affect 30-80% of the adult population. Ouch! That’s a LOT of migraines and tension headaches.. Such a massive amount of disabling pain affecting our ability to work, appreciate life, and just be ourselves, free from the strangling torture of pain!
Acupuncture as a Tool for Migraine & Headache Treatment
When practiced effectively, acupuncture can be an extremely useful tool for the treatment of either migraines or tension-type headaches. As I discussed in my post on How Acupuncture Helps Heart Palpitations and Insomnia, acupuncture needles inserted and properly stimulated set in motion a cascade of physiological reactions in the human body.
The Body’s Responses to Acupuncture Needling
Some of the primary responses to stimulation of acupoints (you know, short for acupuncture points!) include relaxation of the nervous system and soft tissues, including muscles. Also, we see increased blood and lymphatic circulation throughout the body, which allows transport of needed nutrients to cells and tissues for proper repair and function. But the needle response also increases movement of stagnant waste products out of the affected areas via influence on the lymph flow.
Acupuncture, Your Fascia, & Chronic Muscle Tension
It is typical to find chronic muscle tension in the shoulders, upper-back, and neck (cervical) areas in cases of both tension-type headaches, as well as migraines. When acupuncture is administered effectively, the needles interact with the fascia, or connective tissue and slightly “entangle” or “tug” on it, stirring up a series of responses in the body. Because the fascia wraps around our muscles and winds it’s way throughout our bodies and even to internal organs, it can have far-reaching effects.
Calming Nerves with Acupuncture – Switching from Sympathetic to Parasympathetic!
Capillaries from the blood circulation system as well as nerves pass through the fascia accessed near the surface of the body by acupuncture needles. The interaction between the fascia and the needle triggers responses in the nervous system as well as the increase in blood circulation mentioned earlier. Specifically, the nervous system responds by switching from sympathetic, or “fight-or-flight” dominance to parasympathetic, or “relax-and-repair” dominance.
From ‘Fight or Flight’ to ‘Relax & Repair’ – A Path to Deep Relaxation
Our bodies need to be able to switch to “relax and repair” or parasympathetic mode in order to relax muscles, repair and maintain cells and tissues, and normalize organ systems and hormone levels within the body. If our bodies get “stuck” in fight-or-flight mode for extended periods of time, it can become more and more difficult to switch away from that and reach a state of deeper relaxation. This is a simplified explanation of the actions and responses to needling an acupuncture point, but highlights the key aspects.
Treating Headaches & Migraines by Affecting Changes in the Fascia – The Extracellular Matrix
The type of acupuncture I practice is loosely called Fascial Acupuncture, and focuses on the interaction with the fascia and connective tissue system of the body to achieve the quickest and most deeply effective response to treatment. As described in the excellent book The Extracellular Matrix and Ground Regulation: Basis for a Holistic Biological Medicine by Alfred Pischinger, the interaction between the properly stimulated acupuncture needle and the fascia or connective tissue below the surface of the skin sets in motion a cascade of beneficial reactions within the body as mentioned above. The effects on blood circulation, calming the nervous system, lymphatic movement, and relaxation of muscle and soft-tissue play a major role in acupuncture’s successful treatment of tension-type headaches and migraines.
Herbal Medicines to Complement & Boost the Effects of Acupuncture for Headaches & Migraines
I often add some carefully chosen herbal medicines to the acupuncture treatments concurrently. This helps to boost and support the work being done with the acupuncture therapy. The exact herbs for a given patient varies depending on the specific imbalances or health history of the individual – it’s important to tailor both the acupuncture points to be stimulated, as well as any herbal therapies employed for each person’s specific needs. In fact, I find that the acupuncture points most effective for a given patient are typically in different locations from treatment to treatment – the human body is a tremendously dynamic, ever-changing biological wonder, and needs to be treated accordingly for good results!
Some specific herbals to consider for tension-type headaches and migraines follow:
For some, headaches are related to trigger foods or digestive problems – in these cases, one should do their best to isolate and avoid those foods. A food journal can come in handy for this! I sometimes order an IGG Food Sensitivity test from Great Plains Labs to help track down foods that a patient is reacting to. It’s also important to add bitter herbs to improve digestion in the upper GI tract, as well as choleretic herbs (herbs to increase bile production) to support liver function. Some bitters include gentian, dandelion, wormwood, golden seal, and globe artichoke.
Herbs that reduce anxiety and calm the nervous system are often appropriate, especially if they also have analgesic effects – Corydalis and kava can be excellent for this.
Herbs such as wild yam, hawthorn, cramp bark and chamomile can help prevent tension headaches by relaxing the muscles and increasing blood circulation.
Willow bark, California poppy, and Corydalis have useful analgesic (pain-relieving) effects for headache pain, while feverfew is helpful for reducing inflammation seen in tension-type headaches as well as treating migraine symptoms.
When the headaches are related to the menstrual cycle, hormonal regulating herbs such as chaste tree (for pre-menstrual headaches) should be included.
For those of us that trigger headaches with eye-strain, bilberry is an excellent herb to include.
Ginkgo is particularly helpful in elderly people with cerebral ischaemia (reduced blood-flow to the brain), which commonly leads to headaches.
Clinical trials have shown that application of peppermint oil to the temples can relieve headache pain.
If none of the above scenarios apply, localized traction or compression of veins or nerves may be at the root of one’s headaches. For this we use anti-inflammatory and antioedema herbs including horse-chestnut and butcher’s broom, along with St. John’s wort.
Finally, sinusitis can cause headaches – this is addressed by focusing on the sinusitis with herbs such as eyebright and andrographis.
Ginger can be a particularly useful herb for pain relief, particularly for migraines.
The Power of Combining Acupuncture with Herbal Medicine & Lifestyle Adjustments for Resolving Headaches & Migraines
While it’s possible to successfully treat headaches with just one of the components of treatment I’ve mentioned, the majority of patients get the most immediate, long-lasting resolution of headaches and migraines by combining the modalities I’ve mentioned. This is where the guidance of a knowledgeable practitioner is invaluable, helping you to navigate the realm of possible causes and triggers at the root of your body’s particular imbalance, and adjusting the acupuncture treatments and herbal therapies as you progress.
Detoxify your Body & Home to reduce Headaches & Migraines
Toxins such as heavy metals, environmental chemicals and pollutants, and mold toxins can wreak havoc on our immune systems and cause inflammatory cascades in our bodies. Headaches and migraines are common results of toxin accumulation and exposure. Visit my home page to request your free copy of my guide, 10 Common Sources of Toxin Exposure and How to Avoid Them!
Don’t Forget to Breathe Deeply & Be Patient with Yourself!
Don’t forget to get in the habit of slow, deep, abdominal breathing, along with techniques and exercises to correct posture and repetitive stress injuries or strains from poor work-station configurations at the work-place! Lastly, please be patient with yourself! If these treatments and therapies don’t produce immediate or lasting results, keep in mind that it takes some continued treatment to reduce inflammatory processes in the body, re-train nerves and muscles to maintain a more relaxed tone, and erase previous patterns while forming new health-giving habits!
Ready to Take the Next Step?
If you live in or near the Chico, CA area, give me a call to schedule an acupuncture visit and health consultation. Too far away to visit my clinic? Get in touch via phone or email to schedule a Tele-medicine phone consult to receive guidance in alleviating your headaches. I incorporate nutritional and detoxification testing and protocols along with herbal medicine phytotherapy to treat headaches, migraines, and other health conditions at the root level.