Treating Pain with TCM - Part 2 : Headaches

As I've had a constant terrible headache over the last week, I thought it would be a good idea to talk about this common problem for the next article.  I also recently received an email from one of my herb suppliers introducing their new herbal supplement for headaches and I wanted to talk about that too.  

headache Chinese medicine

When we say "I have a headache", it's usually due to stress or some type of physical injury.  In TCM, we identify headaches differently and look for certain key points to help identify other underlying causes.  It's not always about stress or injury, though they're the most common reasons.

When discussing headaches with patients, a TCM practitioner will first ask where the pain is located.  There are usually four areas pain occurs:

1 - The top of the head
2 - The sides of the head
3 - The front of the head
4 - The back of the head

The top of the head usually signifies migraines or JueYin (Liver) headaches.  The sides of the head signify tension/work or ShaoYang (GB) headaches.  The front of the head is usually allergy or YangMing headaches.  Lastly, the back of the head signifies a headache from cold (weather) and colds (viral), and are known as TaiYang headaches.

Other types of headaches

There are two more, less commonly known headaches that don't actually produce pain.  They do, however, cause some mild discomfort.  The both affect the whole head, so knowing how the patient feels helps to identify the cause.  One has a heavy distention that feels like a wet towel is wrapped around the head. This is called a TaiYin headaches and it's usually caused by extreme dampness in an area your body has never visited before and isn't used to.  The other has a feeling of the head feeling "empty" or "foggy".  This is a ShaoYin headache and commonly happens with too much sex.  ShaoYin headaches manifest differently depending on the cause though.  You could have the "empty" feeling, but also have pain around the jaw and irritability.

Headaches can also occur during menstruation and pregnancy due to a lack of blood. They're more closely related to JueYin headaches and TCM Liver function relation to blood.  There are also headaches that occur with cancer and tumors.  When dealing with these other types of headaches, their symptoms vary greatly depending on the person which makes them much more complex to identify and treat. Just to keep things simple, I'm only going to cover the 4 types mentioned above.  

TCM Treatment

Both Acupuncture and herbs are used to treat headaches.  For acupuncture, it's common to use points directly related to the meridian the headache is related to.  For example, JueYin headaches use points of the Liver (3) channel and YangMing headaches use the Large Intestine (4).  With herbs, there's a specific herb used depending on the location as well.  They make up the base of the formula used to help ease the pain and treat the root cause.

Top of the head
Causes: anger, stress, head injury, Qi/Blood Stagnation
Channel: Liver
Herb: Gao Ben

Sides of the head
Causes: Too much work, stress from work, anxiety
Channel: Gallbladder
Herb: Chuan Xiong

Front of the head
Causes: Allergies
Channel: Large Intestine
Herb: Bai Zhi

Back of the head
Causes: Common cold, tight back muscles, coldness
Channel: Urinary Bladder
Herb: Qiang Huo

Heaviness around the head
Causes: Extreme damp weather
Channel: Spleen
Herb: Cang Zhu

Recently, I received an email about a new formula that my supplier was selling that helps with headaches.  This formula contains all the herbs used in the four common types of headaches, along with a couple of extra herbs that move Qi and Blood.  While this is okay for most types of stress headaches, it may only give limited relief for others.  I hope this article helps you gain some more insight on how TCM looks at headaches.  Knowing the reason and location for a headache will help you know how best to treat it.