How Acupuncture Treats Migraines

The first question I ask migraine sufferers when they come into my office is: “In which part of the head do you feel it?” Almost the entire differentiating philosophy of holistic medicine encompassed in one responding inquiry:

There are many different diagnoses for one issue. Also, the same physiological pattern can express as many different issues.

This principle sounds most convincing when read in the voice of an ancient Chinese healer, though its logic is apparent no matter the delivery or context.

Many organ channels run through the head, which means any organ dysfunction can cause migraines, which is just part of the reason why treating it with acupuncture is more challenging than the assignment of Aleve or worse, the non-OTC painkillers that coexist as people killers.

Frontal headaches surrounding the eyes, forehead or sinuses usually indicate the stomach or large intestine channels, which means nutrition is likely playing a big role, which is incredibly good news! Something the patient has objective control over in their day to day life. One teacher of mine believed migraines could always be traced back to mother issues, and I remember feeling horribly discouraged by the notion of my capacities as a healer being limited until my patient completed the potentially lifelong, karmic journey of resolving their maternal conflicts. Ugh.

On the other hand, if a case is as simple as getting someone to start eating breakfast, eliminating sugar or start eating green vegetables, it should be easier to address. I had one patient who gave up eating inorganic meats and foods containing MSG and her migraines of eight years completely stopped. She didn’t even need me.

Migraines on the side of the head tend to correlate with the gallbladder channel, which suggests they are more stress related, possibly as a result of courage or decision-making issues, both of which are controlled by the gallbladder. On the circadian clock of Chinese Medicine the time at which gallbladder energy is greatest is 11pm, and I’ve seen several cases improve, if not fully resolve once the patient started getting to bed before this time. In science there is no such thing as a “night owl.” Ideally, our bodies should be most active at 12:00 noon and least at midnight. For this reason I sometimes hesitate to even bother treating nightshift workers, as prognosis is poorer until they can retire. To complement their dysfunctional lifestyle the best they can do is eat an impeccable diet and take herbal supplements.

On top of the head is where the liver channel concludes, which means pain at the vertex might suggest some lack of “conclusion.” It pairs with the pericardium channel, the muscle that protects the heart, which indicates both an emotional component to the pattern, as well as one to do with the blood. The liver channel manages the body’s circulation of blood and passes through our reproductive system, which is why a close follow up question to female migraine sufferers is whether symptoms coincide with any particular time in their cycle.

Whenever there is pain, whether a migraine, a sore lower back or abdominal menstrual cramps we know there is a lack of blood circulation in the area of discomfort. Sure, we can easily just insert the needle where it hurts, stimulate local blood flow and offer the patient temporary relief, but the greater goal is to regulate the body’s organ channels that manage the macrocosm of blood flow so as to prevent further incidence. Obviously this is difficult if the patient doesn’t come regularly or comply with supportive dietary advice.

Occipital (back of the head) migraines fall on the small intestine, kidney and urinary bladder channels, and are more likely to be a result of dehydration or (adrenal) fatigue. More so than years of therapy to process anger with Mom, you’re best advised to simply up your water intake and sleep. These rarely technically qualify as “migraines,” but are instead are just “headaches;” potentially bad ones that I wouldn’t minimize, although people in contemporary society prefer to err dramatic in semantics, i.e. “I’m literally dying from this pain.” Oh, then we should take you to the Emergency Room; otherwise the library so you could learn the definition of “literally.” If you don’t experience any photosensitivity or nausea along with your headache it is less likely to be a migraine. I digress.

The good news, for both acupuncturists and our patients, is the bottom line, which is because migraines are a form of pain acupuncture can work wonderfully, by increasing the body’s circulation and hitting our proverbial reset button on our operating system. Whether myself, or whoever is most geographically convenient for you, I would highly recommend several sessions of acupuncture to address any and all issues with the head, as it can only help. Although painkillers can effectively treat the branch (an understandable desire in the moment of suffering), their number one side effect has to do with the gut, which might exacerbate the root, especially if you’re a more frontal migraine person.

I’m fortunate to have had all kinds of migraine patients, not just in their varying “pattern” presentations, but also in individual approaches to acupuncture and their own well being. Some come to the office committed to weekly attendance for months on end, along with a strict herbal regiment, determined to expose and adjust the root cause of their disorder and change their lives. Others come only during acute attacks, which as a new, wide-eyed, green-horn practitioner I occasionally used to resent, naively wishing that everyone was on a mission to transform and resolve all of their life’s problems at that moment. As I’ve matured with experience I’ve come to appreciate patients of all patterns and approaches, as even if they only call me when it hurts, it is still an honor to be thought of as their “doctor.”

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