Headaches are a very common complaint that we work with at Village Remedies in our Balmain and Sydney CBD clinics. It is estimated that up to 7 million Australians experience tension headaches and 4.9 million suffer from migraines. This page is a resource for those with chronic headaches. It is intended for educational purposes only and should only be followed with the guidance of your acupuncturist or other health professional.
First up it is important to realise that severe headaches can be a sign of something more sinister and should be investigated by your doctor. If you have any of the following symptoms, please check in with your doctor:
Chronic (3 months or more) and worsening symptoms
Abrupt or severe symptoms, worse than you’ve ever experienced
Combined with fever and stiff neck
Combined with other disturbances such as confusion, dizziness, seizures, impaired vision, weakness, numbness, and/or difficulty speaking
You’ve recently had a head injury
If you have any of the above, or are just in doubt, please check in with your doctor. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you have something sinister, but it is better to rule those things out.
Assuming that is all clear, you might want to see how acupuncture and Chinese medicine can help. At Village Remedies, we usually find that headaches are closely related to the neck, meaning that tension and dysfunction of joints and muscles of the neck are key contributing factors to the experience of headaches. While there may be other factors contributing to your pain, the neck and general posture is where we start. We will also look at how we can help things like stress, sleep, breathing, hormonal influences and digestion which can all impact and contribute to headaches as well.
Below is a reference to some of the key exercises, strategies and advice we give clients when working with headaches. Please note that the phases are not neccessarily linear and will cross over according to your situation. These are combined with acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine treatment aimed at pain relief, correcting imbalanced areas of the body and supporting your overall health. Our goal at Village Remedies is to treat you as a whole person to support you to feel happier, healthier and free from chronic headaches. Book a treatment with us online here or contact us for more information.
PHASE 1: PAIN RELIEF
Our first step with treatment is to try to get your pain more under control. We predominantly use a "distal" style of acupuncture which means we use points away from the painful area (i.e. no points in your neck or head) to stimulate your body to release it's natural pain relief and to start correcting imbalances contributing to your headaches. The benefit of this approach is that there is less risk of aggravating the pain by needling into already irritated tissue.
Outside of the clinic, there are a few things you can do to help relieve the pain of a headache such as acupressure (see point examples below), a heat pack applied to the back of your neck, tiger balm rubbed into the temple, or over the counter pain relief (see your pharmacist).
These strategies will only offer short term relief. For long term improvement, you will need to correct the various things contributing to your headaches that we'll go through over the rest of this page. However, even when working on long term improvement, there will often be periods of exacerbation, so use these techniques as needed while working on the other things.
PHASE 2: RESTORING NECK MOBILITY
Your practitioner will take you through a series of range of motion tests to identify any mobility issues in the neck that may be contributing to your headaches. Essentially, the tighter your neck muscles are and the stiffer your neck joints, the more likely you are to have headaches. Once we have a baseline for your range of motion, your practitioner will use acupuncture to begin restoring healthy movement. Here are some individual stretches and exercises that you can use at home and work to continue opening up your neck, followed be simple range of motion routine (see below for videos).
The first stretch will help mobilise your upper neck joints and the second targets a key muscle responsible for neck dysfunction. For both of these stretches, take your neck to the point of feeling a comfortable stretch and hold it for 15-60 seconds each side. It should not be painful, if it is, stop and consult with your practitioner. Aim to do these stretches 3 times daily.
For the chin tuck exercise, do 10 repetitions a time, aiming for 5 times per day. If you find your neck muscles fatiguing or becoming painful, stop and consult with your practitioner. The chin tuck is also part of the neck mobility routine which you can use throughout the day to help offset desk posture.
PHASE 3: STRENGTHENING THE NECK & UPPER BACK
Often when areas of the body become over tight, there will be corresponding areas that are weak. A common postural dysfunction called "upper cross syndrome" occurs for many of us with neck pain and headaches. This is essentially where the muscles in the front of the neck and chest become over contracted (very common with desk work and looking on our phones for too long), causing muscles in the upper back and neck to become weaker, over lengthened and fatigued. Your practitioner will assess you for these imbalances and use acupuncture to work on where it is needed.
Key areas to address are tension in the pec muscles which roll the shoulders forward, pulling the neck and head forward, and weakness in the lower trapezius muscle responsible for helping bring back the shoulder blades. It is also important to keep up your chin tuck exercise to correct forward head posture (see videos below).
Start with a pec stretch for 15-60 seconds in each direction (upper, middle and lower variations) and each side. Follow up with one or both of the lower trap activation exercises for 15 repetitions each time. Aim to do this 3 times daily. Continue aiming for 5 times daily with the chin tuck exercise.
PHASE 4: IMPROVING POSTURE & MOVEMENT
The neck and head does not move in isolation to the rest of the body, which is why it is important to look at your posture and how you move overall. Some of the key areas that can impact your neck posture will be mid to upper back tension, shoulder tension (particularly shortening of the latissimus dorsi) and tension in the hip flexors throwing off the balance of your entire torso. Your practitioner will use acupuncture to help address these imbalances, but here are some simple exercises you can do at home to keep improving.
With the thoracic decompression, if you are comfortable, you can stay on a segment for a couple of minutes (up to 3 minutes) before rolling down to the next spot, keeping within the area of your ribs. Take your time and focus on easing into each spot along the thoracic spine with relaxed breathing. If you find yourself holding your breath, that's probably a sign that it's too intense and you need to back off. This is a nice one to do at the end of a day, particularly if you're a desk worker. WIth the other stretches, use the general advice of 15-60 seconds per side each time. If you find either of these areas particularly tight, you may want to do the stretch a few times per day until it feels more comfortable.
LIFESTYLE & OTHER FACTORS
There are other areas that can contribute to neck dysfunction and headaches that you may not have thought about. Here are some of the things your practitioner will check in with and work with if necessary:
Breathing - if your sinuses are often congested, live with asthma or have just developed shallow breathing habits, this can contribute to neck tension in a major way. It is very common to breathe too much in our upper chest which overstains our neck muscles and overstimulates our sympathetic nervous system (i.e. our stress response) which increases our sensitivity to pain and tightens muscles in general. Your practitioner can use acupuncture and/or herbs to help address breathing difficulties.
Sleep - sufficient quality sleep is crucially important for your health overall. In particular for headaches, lack of quality sleep and recovery can increase you pain sensitivity and muscle tension. Sleep difficulties include issues with falling asleep, waking during the night, vivid dreams, night sweats, and/or waking unrefreshed in the mornings. Your practitioner can use acupuncture and/or Chinese herbal medicine to help with sleep. Also see our 3 part sleep series here.
Digestion - a healthy digestive system is key for overall health and the absorption of nutrients that you need for healthy muscle and nerve function. Inflammation in the gut has also been linked to systemic inflammation. Your practitioner will check in with things like bloating, reflux, cramping, bowel movments and appetite to get an idea of the health of your digestive system and use acupuncture and Chinese medicine to help where needed.
Stress - this affects us all in different ways. We tend to have an association that being "stressed" means we're overwhelmed and not coping well with what's going on. This is not the stress we're talking about. Even things that we would consider to be good or normal, like being busy with a new job or waking early to get our kids ready for school, the body will perceive as a stressor and respond with our stress response (also the fight/flight response or sympathetic nervous system). This is useful and necessary to get things done, but if we get caught up, our body's become less efficient at switching into our recovery state (also the rest/digest response or parasympathetic nervous system). If we become more "sympathetic dominant" it can cause disruption to all of the areas listed above, as well as increase our pain sensitivity and tighten our muscles (especially our neck and shoulders). This is a key area to address. We use acupuncture to help start training your body to switch into a parasympathetic recovery state and Chinese herbs can also help regulate this.
Desk Work - many of us have to sit or stand at a desk for work which is often a key aggravating factor to posture, tension and pain. Unfortunately we can't all just quit and retire to an island where we have daily massages on the beach. See the video below for some advice to help manage your posture at work. Also use your favourite exercises from the above phases (such as the neck mobility routine) throughout the day to help break that posture habit.