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Treating Headaches with Acupuncture

Headaches and the Role of Acupuncture Treatment

Who hasn’t had a headache in their life? It is certainly one of the most common symptoms seen in clinical practice. The International Headache Society currently classifies headaches into 3 major categories:

Primary headaches

  • Migraine

  • Tension-type headache

  • Trigeminal autonomic cephalalgias

  • Other primary headache disorders

Secondary headaches

Headache attributed to

  • trauma or injury to the head and/or neck

  • cranial or cervical vascular disorder

  • non-vascular intracranial disorder

  • a substance or its withdrawal

  • infection

  • disorder of homoeostasis

  • disorder of the cranium, neck, eyes, ears, nose, sinuses, teeth, mouth or other facial or cervical structure

  • psychiatric disorder

Painful cranial neuropathies, other facial pains and other headaches

  • Painful cranial neuropathies and other facial pains

  • Other headache disorders

Diagnosis with Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) does not recognize these headache categories as one particular syndrome. Every person’s symptoms are unique, and are always considered within the larger context of the patient’s health and energetic imbalances. Therefore, your diagnosis and treatment will depend on a number of variables: Where is your headache located? When do your headaches occur? What makes the pain better? What makes it worse? How do you describe your pain?

Treatment is then individualized to each person, using a variety of techniques such as acupuncture, Chinese herbs and tui-na massage, to restore imbalances found in the body.

And how does acupuncture work? What is Qi? Acupuncture is the oldest continuously practiced medical system in the world and is used by one third of the world's population as a primary health care system. The World Health Organization (WHO) has endorsed acupuncture treatment for many conditions, including stress, digestive disorders, depression, allergies, sleeping disorders, addictions, headaches, and menstrual disorders. This highly effective system of medical care is based on natural laws that govern the movement of vital life-giving energy. This energy, called Qi (pronounced Chee), moves through the body in precise channels and supports optimal functioning of the body, mind and spirit. Qi flowing through the different organs and their associated meridians is called, for example, lung qi, or liver qi or kidney qi. A disruption of this energy flow causes an imbalance that begins to surface in the form of specific symptoms. These symptoms are viewed in relationship to the totality of a person in order to explore the root cause of a condition or illness. Acupuncture is the insertion of very fine, sterile and single-use needles placed in specific acupuncture points to assist in rebalancing organ and bio-mechanical disharmonies.

Etiology of Headaches in TCM

The main factors involved in the etiology of headache are

  • Constitutional Deficiencies

  • Emotional stress: Anger, worry, sadness and grief, fear, shock, pensiveness, guilt, shame

  • Overwork

  • Excessive sexual activity

  • Irregular diet

  • Trauma

  • Childbirth

  • External factors

Constitutional deficiencies are inherited from our parents, and depend on the general health of our parents, their health at the time of conception and the conditions of the mother’s pregnancy. Any of these factors can lead to a weakening of the child’s organs (note: organs in TCM do not directly correspond to the organs described in biomedicine). Thus, if the parents are older, the child may have Kidney or Liver deficiency (nighttime or frequent urination, lack of energy, dull headaches); if the parents had poor health at the time of conception, then the child could have a deficiency of the Spleen (poor muscle tone, digestive problems, headaches in the front of the head and related to food) , Lungs (tendency towards respiratory illnesses, eczema, pale complexion) or Heart (dream disturbed sleep, nervousness, forehead or whole head headaches); excessive alcohol consumption may cause Heart or Lung deficiency.

Emotional causes are one of the most frequent causes of headache. Anger, frustration resentment pent-up grudges all can cause the Liver to get energetically imbalanced, resulting in ‘Liver Yang Rising’ or Liver Fire’, with the headaches typically located at the sides of the head and temples. Like anger, worry, too can cause Liver Yang Rising.

Sadness and grief deplete qi, which in turn may deplete blood and lead to blood deficiency, resulting in dull headaches.

Fear depletes the kidney qi and can cause headaches that affect the whole head.

Mental overwork frequently causes headaches in children that can persist into adulthood; this is seen in children who spend long hours studying combined with family/school pressures to perform; in addition, long hours at the computer can add to the eye strain, leading, collectively, to severe headaches, or migraines.

Overwork depletes the spleen qi and in the long run, can affect the kidney qi as well, leading to whole head headaches, or headaches on the sides/temples.

Excessive sexual activity, especially in men, and frequent childbirths in women, can deplete ‘kidney essence’ and lead to headaches and dizziness, especially after intercourse.

Diet is a very important factor. Irregular eating, eating spicy foods, fried/damp- producing foods, over-eating, too much salt, restricting food intake in the name of dieting can all cause headaches.

Not eating enough causes qi and blood deficiency; over-eating can obstruct stomach qi and weaken the spleen causing sharp forehead headaches; excessive spicy foods can cause liver fire or stomach heat, both causing frontal headaches; damp producing foods (greasy, fried foods, dairy products, bananas, peanuts, white sugar) cause a feeling of heaviness and dull forehead headaches with a heavy head. Excessive salt in the diet will affect the kidneys, resulting in dull headaches that may be all over, or in the back of the head. Sour foods affect the liver and can cause headaches. It is also well known that coffee can trigger headaches, and people with chronic headaches should avoid its consumption.

Self Help

In addition to getting acupuncture treatments, a couple of important acupuncture points can be massaged to relieve headaches.

He Gu (LI4) is located on the highest spot of the muscle on the back of the hand when the thumb and index fingers are brought close together. To use acupressure on this point, locate the point then use a deep, firm pressure to massage and stimulate the area for 4-5 seconds. This point can also induce labor, and so should be avoided in pregnant women. (

Feng Chi (GB20) is recommended for headache, migraine, eye blurriness or fatigue, low energy, and cold/flu symptoms. Feng Chi (GB20) is located by feeling for the mastoid (ear) bone and following the groove back to where the neck muscles attach to the skull. To use acupressure on this point, locate the point and use a deep, firm pressure towards skull to massage and stimulate the area for 4-5 seconds. Clasp your hands together then gently open your palms with your fingers interlocked to form a cup shape, using your thumbs to massage. (

Acupuncture offers safe and effective solutions for headaches. Always go to a licensed acupuncturist for your treatments. And remember, avoid caffeine....


  • Cephalalgia 33(9) 629–808; International Headache Society 2013

  • Maciocia G (2008) The practice of chinese medicine. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone.



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