Headaches are one of the most common medical complaints in America. This is due to a variety of causes, but the primary factor involved in chronic headaches is stress. Stress headaches (also called tension headaches) are reaching epidemic proportions in the modern world. Migraine and cluster headaches are also becoming more prevalent. Most people will either suck it up and live with the pain or will turn to conventional medicine to find some pain relief. While medications do seem to help with the pain of certain patterns, many people would prefer to avoid this route because of the cost and possibility of side effects.
Fortunately there are a great number of natural treatment options for headaches that can effectively eradicate the cause of the headaches or, at the very least, reduce the pain to a more tolerable level. Identifying the cause of headaches is one of the central challenges that all practitioners face. In particular, migraine patterns can be mysterious and spontaneous. They can be due to food allergies, stress, hormonal imbalances, emotional issues, dehydration, trauma, genetic factors, heavy metal poisoning, or intestinal toxicity.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Chinese medicine is that it looks for a unifying theme through the patient’s entire presentation, not just their distinct symptoms. We can’t simply say, ‘OK, here is the herbal magic bullet for headaches.’ What we can do is identify a pattern of disharmony that is based on all of the patient’s symptoms, along with their pulse and tongue diagnosis. This helps us to get a deeper picture of what is occurring. In Chinese medicine, we want to see everything improve, not just the presenting complaint. For instance, if a patient comes in with temporal headaches (pain in the side of the head), constipation and irritability, and they have tense pulses and swollen sides to the tongue, the Chinese medical diagnosis would be liver qi stagnation. This means that the liver isn’t functioning optimally and that the circulatory function of this vital organ is impaired. By regulating the liver qi, all of these symptoms are expected to improve.
In Chinese medicine, it isn’t necessarily important what kinds of headaches are occurring. As long as the correct pattern is identified, the headaches should be treatable. Below are a few common headache patterns along with their herbal treatments.
1) Liver Qi stagnation: Temporal headaches, worse with the menses, PMS, irritability, menstrual cramps, gas, muscle tension and stiffness, red eyes, ear ringing.
Herbal formula: Xiao yao wan
2) Liver Heat: Temporal headaches, red eyes, ear ringing, rage, high blood pressure, jaw tension, subcostal pain, consistent agitation, dream disturbed sleep, more severe symptoms.
Herbal formula: Long dan xie gan tang
3) Liver Wind: Migrating headache, high blood pressure, dizziness, tremors, memory impairment, slurred speech
Herbal formula: Tian ma gou teng yin
4) Wind cold pathogen: Pain at the nape of the neck, occipital headache, ongoing cold/flu, dizziness
Herbal formula: Ge gen tang
5) Headache due to digestive weakness: diarrhea, constipation, headache behind the eyes, bloating, fatigue, sluggish after eating, food allergies
Herbal formulas: with diarrhea—Liu jun zi tang
With constipation—Ma zi ren wan
6) Blood deficiency: scanty menses, fatigue, empty feeling in head with dull achiness, pale, coldness, listlessness
Herbal formula: Ba zhen tang
A strategy that I commonly employ is combining a formula for specific patterns with a more general headache formula that works for headaches of all etiologies. Formulas such as Head Q by Health Concerns and Head Relief by Golden Flower are examples of excellent empirical headache formulas.
Butterbur and feverfew are among the most researched Western herbs that have proven to be effective in the treatment of headaches.
The acupuncture point Large Intestine 4 is an excellent area to apply pressure to when you have a headache. The point is located just off the second metacarpal bone between the thumb and ring finger. This area is usually tender with most headache patterns. In general, I consider acupuncture to be an incredibly effective and safe option for people with chronic headaches of all kinds. I recommend committing to treatment once a week for 4-6 weeks for chronic headaches, then assessing for progress.
The following supplements are also worth considering:
5HTP: Some headaches are due to a serotonin deficiency. This is a natural precursor to serotonin that is also useful for insomnia, depression, and anxiety. Start with 50 mg per day, then add 50 mg per week up to 300 mg.
B vitamin complex: B vitamins are essential for maintaining a healthy mental and emotional balance and for warding off excessive stress. Take the recommended dosage of a comprehensive B complex.
Calcium and Magnesium: these are natural relaxing agents for the central nervous system. Many headache sufferers are deficient in these essential minerals. Supplement with 500mg daily of each.
Fish Oil: Essential fatty acids have been clinically proven to reduce all kinds of pain and inflammation in the body. Take 3-4,000mg daily with food.
- Avoid foods that cause inflammation in the body, such as sugar, refined carbohydrates, caffeine, and alcohol.
- Avoid synthetic sweeteners such as aspartame.
- Drink 6-9 glasses of filtered water daily Other therapies to consider:
Chiropractic care: Some headaches are due to cervical subluxations and mechanical joint irritation that can be treated with adjustments
Massage: Excellent for tension headaches with stiff shoulders
Meditation: Induces the relaxation response to promote deep tranquility and balance and engages the rest and restore parasympathetic nervous system.
Yoga: A virtual panacea for many stress-related health problems. Many people have found permanent relief of their headaches through regular yoga practice.
Exercise: People who suffer from headaches are generally more sedentary. I recommend exercising 20-30 minutes a day, 4-5 days per week.
It is my hope that this article has given you some newfound hope in treating headaches both safely and effectively.