Headaches are a major problem for millions of Americans. Studies have reported that almost four in every ten people in the US suffers from regular tension headaches, and more than one in ten suffers from regular migraines. Relief options generally involve medications, which have unwanted side-effects and limited effectiveness.
Two review studies offer hope of another effective treatment. They show that acupuncture is effective in treating both tension headaches and migraines.
Review studies take a substantial group of studies on a topic and perform a “meta-analysis” on them to see if there is a trend in one direction or another among a body of research. Both of these reviews were performed by researchers at the Centre for Complementary Medicine Research in Munich, Germany.
In the first meta-analysis on tension headaches, they looked at a collection of eleven studies with a total of 2,317 participants. In the second review studying migraines, they reviewed twenty-two studies that included 4,419 people. In the end, each review concluded that acupuncture is an effective treatment for both tension headaches and migraines.
Of course, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is effective for more than just these two types of headaches, and eventually the research will catch up. In TCM, pain is generally due to stagnation of blood and/or chi. In order to ease the pain, TCM seeks to restore the flow of these precious substances, and most headaches respond very quickly, noticeably reducing in strength if not disappearing during the acupuncture session.
Tension headaches are due to tightness in the muscles of the neck, jaw and upper trapezoid muscles which restricts blood flow to and from the head, thus causing pain. To relieve this type of headache, we must first relieve the tension. Tight muscles respond very well to acupuncture, tuina bodywork, and herbs—taken internally and even applied externally. Simply relieving this tension will ease the headache for the moment, but to create lasting relief, the source of the tension must also be addressed. So, during a treatment practitioners will select other points on the body to ease overall tension and anxiety. Herbal therapy is again a key to this treatment’s success. Practitioners often prescribe meditation and chi gong—ancient tools designed to help prevent external life stress from becoming internal health problems.
The causes of migraine headaches are generally less obvious and even in modern science, are not well understood. In TCM, though the mechanism of the headache—lack of flow to and from the head remains the same, the causes of migraines are quite varied. For some, it is hormonal. Indeed, three times as many women suffer from migraines as men—often related to their menstrual cycle. For other people, triggers include changes in the weather, diet, odors, lights, medications, too much or not enough sleep, physical activity, sex, and stress. Migraines tend to respond best to acupuncture and internal herbal therapy, and can often be greatly reduced or even resolved with early intervention. Treatments may include other modalities depending on the trigger.
Sinus headaches on the other hand are generally due to a build-up of phlegm and mucus in the sinuses, resulting in pressure. They must be resolved by both moving the mucus out of the sinuses and eliminating the cause of its overabundance. Again, acupuncture, herbs and diet are integral in treatment.