Tools for combatting headaches

Headaches come in many forms, all of them distressing. I commonly see people in the clinic who suffer from tension headaches, sinus headaches, cervicogenic (stemming from the neck) headaches, migraines, or various combinations of these. 

Fortunately, there are a number of methods to combat headaches. Acupuncture, herbal therapy, and bodywork (particularly trigger point therapy and positional release therapy) can reduce the frequency and intensity of headaches and, in some cases, get rid of them entirely. 

Each personʼs headache is unique and thus requires a unique combination of treatment methods. 

To create an appropriate treatment plan, we must first determine the cause of the headaches, whether muscle tension in the neck and upper back, hormonal fluctuation, emotional stress, or hypersensitivity to various triggers, such as light, strong smells, chemicals, or certain foods. Second, we need to determine the Chinese medicine pattern, based on pulse and tongue diagnosis. Pattern differentiation is particularly important in order to create an appropriate herbal formula, as well as for the proper selection of acupuncture points.

Acupuncture treatment can be used to prevent headaches long-term as well as treat an acute headache. Chronic and severe headaches may require a period of regular treatments in order to regulate the system, release patterns of tension, and manage stress. 

To alleviate discomfort of an acute headache, treatment first involves a general treatment to reduce the intensity of the headache, followed by chasing the pain, one needle or trigger point at a time, until it is gone. 

What about medication and headaches? Can acupuncture provide an alternative? Most headache sufferers are accustomed to taking medications, including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), muscle relaxants, antihistamines, corticosteroids, opioids, and triptans. We are certainly lucky to have these options, but continued and frequent use can lead to rebound headaches, which often occur daily. 

Acupuncture, bodywork, and herbal treatments are great tools to manage headaches while patients decrease their medication and are going through withdrawal. Magnesium is another tool that can be helpful to lessen muscle tension and reduce migraine headaches; my preference is magnesium glycinate

And we have one more tool–most of my headache clients are big fans of auricular semi-permanent (ASP) ear needles. These are semipermanent needles that are shaped like tiny darts. Once inserted in particular points in the ear, they are covered with a tiny piece of tape to keep them secured in place, and can be retained for several days. These little darts offer great relief between acupuncture treatments. To see a photo of ASP ear needles in action, click here.

For further reading: A systematic review of scientific studies concluded that acupuncture provides greater relief for headaches than either medication or a placebo.