“Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.”
This standard, colloquial advice perhaps best summarizes western medicine’s treatment of headaches.
Not that there’s anything wrong with nipping nagging throbbing headaches in the bud as soon as possible…
Especially if it’s an infrequent occurrence.
But if you suffer from headaches fairly regularly, wouldn’t you like to not only alleviate your symptoms but also find the root cause?
TCM Remedies for Headaches: A Western Perspective on Root Causes
Debilitating injuries or chronic disease aside, here’s how one prominent western medical website identifies the root cause of headaches, which fall into two main categories, primary and secondary:
“Primary headaches are stand-alone illnesses caused directly by the overactivity of, or problems with, structures in the head that are pain-sensitive.
This includes the blood vessels, muscles, and nerves of the head and neck. They may also result from changes in chemical activity in the brain.” [SOURCE]
Western medicine identifies five main types of headaches.
These are tension headaches (the most common type of primary headache); migraines (second most common primary headache), cluster headaches (considered a primary; this research shows they may be considered secondary as well); rebound headaches (the most common secondary headache); and sinus headaches (secondary; caused by sinusitis).
TCM Remedies for Headaches: A TCM Perspective on Root Causes
You won’t find these five types of headaches listed in a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) textbook. TCM theory also does not recognize the two main categories of primary and secondary headaches.
However, TCM, like western medicine does identify two main causes of headaches: exogenous (external) factors and internal disorders.
Let’s look at external causes first…
An invasion of wind opens the skin’s pores. And if your defensive Qi (what would be considered in western medicine, the immune system) is weak, this can lead the way for other “evil” exogenic influences to invade and further weaken the body.
(Wind is not necessarily an esoteric concept; you can think of it in a literal sense as well, i.e. going outside on a windy day underdressed.)
Depending on the type of wind (wind-cold, wind-heat, wind-dampness), your Qi and Blood can be blocked in one of the meridians that opens into the head.
There are several meridian channels that reach the head. These include the Gall Bladder, Large Intestine, Stomach and Urinary Bladder pathways.
This explanation of the root cause of headaches is simple enough if you think about it…
Let’s think of an example. Perhaps you’re hiking in hot, sticky weather. Your immune system becomes vulnerable to a wind-heat and/or wind-dampness invasion.
And let’s sprinkle in some western explanation as well … you fail to resupply your cells with electrolytes. Because of dehydration, your Qi becomes deficient. And since Qi moves Blood, Blood becomes stagnant.
Moreover, if this Qi and Blood deficiency or stagnation affects one or more of the meridians that lead to the head, it may manifest as a pounding headache. After all, if Blood is deficient, free flow of this precious substance is unable to reach the head adequately.
External headaches are most often more debilitating.
What Causes Internal Headaches?
Above, we discussed headaches caused by exterior invasions. Now, let’s address internal disorders that may also give rise to headaches…
Your overall well being largely depends on internal Yin/Yang harmony.
However, if one your Zang Fu organs isn’t working properly, several problems may arise. (Your Zang Fu organs do not only correspond to the solid organs in western anatomy.)
Like western medicine, Chinese medicine acknowledges stress as a major contributor to headaches. So let’s say you indeed have lots of stress.
Your Qi can become stagnant. And when your Qi becomes stagnant, your Liver organ system suffers. Sadness and anger can manifest when Liver Qi becomes stagnant.
And left untreated, stagnant Liver Qi can result in headaches.
Other internal root causes of headaches are depleted Kidney Qi (which may be caused by poor diet); excess and/or stagnant phlegm caused by Spleen Qi deficiency; and hyperactive Liver Yang energy (think of somebody “always on the go,” unable to unwind).
TCM Remedies for Headaches: Diagnosing Before Popping Pills
As noted above, in western medicine, there are five main subtypes of headaches, either the result of a primary or secondary cause. Treatment of headaches in western medicine is most often over-the-counter remedies such as NSAIDs or prescription medication.
In comparison, TCM focuses on treating the person by assessing which organs or meridian channels are out of balance.
Thus, not only does TCM solve acute pain symptoms, it also addresses the root cause.
How does an acupuncturist or Chinese medicine doctor diagnose the root cause of headache? One simple method is by asking the patient what type of headache they have.
If it’s a stabbing pain type, such as the exercise example above, this is likely due to Blood stasis.
But if the patient feels a groggy, heavy-headed type of discomfort in the head, the root cause may be phlegm stagnation. And a dull, empty-type of headache may be the result of Kidney Qi deficiency.
To rectify the imbalance, acupuncture and/or Chinese herbs are used.
Chinese medicine experts take into account not only the type of headache but also identify where the pains/sensations are occurring.
TCM Remedies for Headaches
Are you one of the estimated 37 million people (in the U.S.) who suffer from migraines? Sorry, ancient Chinese medicine texts don’t recognize migraines.
But that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck and Chinese medicine can’t help. In fact, the herbal remedy, Migranoff, is especially formulated to drive out exogenic wind.
Remember from above that external wind is a major factor in many headaches? Well, external wind attacks almost always cause migraines.
And if you’re somebody who is a type A personality, Liver Yang rising is responsible for your headache. When Yin energy fails to balance Yang energy, Liver Yang spirals out of control, uprising (literally, rising up towards the top of the head), generating heat and perhaps, headaches.
In this case, our signature formula, Liver Windclear calms the Liver, extinguishes Wind, and nourishes Yin to clear away Heat. TCM doctors use this formula for the Liver Wind syndrome that includes headaches.
With the exception of Liver Yang rising headaches, another one of our signature formulas—HeadClarity—is appropriate for many acute tension headaches.
Especially if you have symptoms of external wind invasion: thin, white tongue coating, superficial pulse and fever and/or chills.
If you have headaches caused by a secondary condition, namely vertigo or nausea, our formula, Vertigoff, may offer relief.
And finally, if you have cluster headaches, caused by a wind-cold invasion, our signature formula, Kudzu Relaxe, may alleviate your symptoms by dispelling wind-cold. It does this by inducing sweating, which rids the body of the exogenous invasion. One of the herbs in the formula, Gan Cao (licorice root) helps the body regenerate precious fluids and relieves pain.
For more information on our TCM remedies for headaches click here.