Headache Relief With Acupuncture & Chinese Medicine
Headaches are a very common complaint that we work with at Village Remedies in our Balmain and Sydney CBD clinics. For some it’s an occasional tension headache associated with too much desk work or stress, but for some, headaches are a part of daily life, sometimes even including severe migraines which really impair one’s ability to function and lead a normal life. In this article, we’ll look at some of the current understanding and treatment of headache, followed by acupuncture for headaches and how we approach treatment.
What Is A Headache?
The jury is still out on the exact cause of headaches, but it’s probably multifactorial involving any combination of muscular tension, hyper-sensitive pain receptors, hormonal imbalances, blood flow issues all relating to the neck and head area.
The most common form of headache is a tension headache which is felt as a dull, aching type of pain and/or a feeling of pressure and tightness in the head. Often there will be tender spots in muscles of the head and neck. These may be only episodic or if they occur more than 15 days each month for 3 months or more, they are considered chronic.
Severe tension headaches can often be confused with migraines, and for some chronic sufferers, they will experience both. Usually a migraine will involve other symptoms such as visual disturbances, nausea and/or vomiting.
Most of the time, the cause of headaches are unidentifiable with normal imaging and blood tests, but if you have been experiencing chronic or worsening symptoms, it is worth checking in with your doctor. If at any point your symptoms are abrupt and severe, and/or involve any other symptoms of fever, stiff neck, confusion, seizures, double vision, weakness, numbness and/or difficulty speaking, then you should seek emergency medical care. This also goes for a worsening headache after any head injury. When in doubt, see your doctor.
Typically when you see a doctor, headaches are most often treated with lifestyle advice and medication. Lifestyle advice includes things like trying to identify particular triggers and strategies to reduce stress. Exercise, a healthy diet and good hydration can also help. Depending on the severity of symptoms, medication can be as simple as panadol for pain relief, or for more severe pain may involve potentially addictive opiates or narcotics. Longer term treatment may involve antidepressants, muscle relaxants, and even anti-seizure pharmaceuticals.
While symptoms of chronic headache may be managed with the above strategies, they are rarely eliminated and many are still left seeking further relief or an alternative to medications that come with their own list of potential side effects.
Acupuncture For Headaches
In a 2016 Cochrane review, acupuncture for tension headaches was supported as a viable treatment option for those who suffer from chronic headaches. The research showed 48% of participants had a reduction of 50% or more in the frequency of headaches with a minimum course of 6 treatments, compared with only 17% of those receiving standard care.
Another 2016 Cochrane review supported acupuncture as an effective treatment in the prevention of migraine episodes. A longer follow up study published in 2017 revealed that acupuncture had sustained improvements for migraine frequency over a 20 week follow up period after the initial 4 weeks of acupuncture treatment.
When we treat headaches at Village Remedies, we always treat you as a whole person, rather than just a sore head. We start by taking a detailed history of your current pain and ask questions around things like stress, sleep and digestion. This helps us to create a more general picture of your health and current condition. Often chronic headaches come with other disruptions to our health which, left unchecked, will get in the way of relief from chronic headaches. For example, if sleep quality is poor, your body will naturally be more sensitive to pain as well as receiving less time to recover from each day, allowing tension to build up and contribute to headaches.
In physical assessment, we will always pay particular attention to the neck. We’ve found that there is a strong relationship between neck tension and headache symptoms. Even when headaches seem to be triggered hormonally or from dietary causes or with stress, often there is neck tension is underlying, waiting for something to tip it over the edge into a headache.
Once we have identified the key contributing factors, we use acupuncture to target areas of tension, improve circulation and enhance the body’s ability to heal and recover naturally. We do this using predominately a “distal” style of acupuncture, meaning we use points distant to the area we’re trying to affect. This reduces the risk of causing aggravation to headache symptoms, and often the results are noticeable immediately, though longer term improvements require a course of treatment.
Chinese medicine for headaches is another option that your practitioner may explore with you. By taking a herbal formula daily, it is like receiving extra treatment every day, and we find that it can amplify the results of acupuncture.
Depending on the severity and chronicity of your headaches, treatment courses can range from weeks to months, but throughout that time your practitioner will be checking in with your progress and making sure that you’re continuing to improve and find value in your treatments.