I began noticing my headaches getting bad around age 14. I am now 20 years old. As the years went on, they became more painful and were also increasing in frequency. Prior to acupuncture I would get a headache at least 5 days a week and would be anywhere from a 7 to a 10 on a 1-10 pain scale. I have never been able to pinpoint the one thing that brings them on as it seemed like anything I did would cause a migraine. I was put on antidepressant, blood pressure and stomach medications to try and reduce the occurrence and intensity of the headaches, but it never helped. I didn’t have energy to do any activities with my migraines and I would also have light sensitivity, so I generally just wanted to sleep during them.
The above story is from an actual patient who wanted to share their experience with migraines. Does this sound familiar to you? Do you find yourself fantasizing about how much more lively your day and work-life would be if you weren’t suffering, yet again, from another headache? Acupuncture can be an effective treatment option for the management and prevention for migraines (1).
According to the CDC, migraines can be severely debilitating and are considered one of the main causes of disability worldwide [with] one study showing more than half of people who reported migraines had severe impairment in activity, the need for bed rest, and/or reduced work or school productivity due to migraines (2,3,4).
Causes of migraine headaches vary and can be linked to ongoing everyday emotional or physical stressors, tension in the body from physical activities, stressful life events, hormonal phases related to the menstrual cycle, food allergies, weather (bright sunlight, high humidity, stormy weather, as well as lack of sleep or dehydration.
It’s an important step to discover the migraine patterns you experience and the internal and external triggers and causes. What are your personal situations and habits that could be contributing to migraine episodes?
Keeping a migraine journal can help you explore your migraine triggers.
Understanding Migraines with Chinese Medicine
In Chinese medicine, it is understood that when there is pain, there is stuck or constrained Qi along certain acupuncture meridians. As the Qi flow is opened up with acupuncture and supported with Chinese herbs, pain relief follows.
The underlying causes of migraines and headaches according to Chinese medicine vary, but are most commonly linked to an imbalance in the Wood element, which is connected to what are called the Liver and Gallbladder acupuncture meridians. Selecting certain acupuncture points on these meridians are helpful for moving the Wood Qi, helping to relieve the headache.
Part of the power and beauty in Chinese medicine comes from the ability to understand symptoms, illnesses, and conditions in terms of the overall patterns of your life. The healthy movement of Wood describes our reaching upwards like a growing plant in the Springtime, giving rise to our self-assertion and forward momentum in our lives.
Imagine your ability to reach your purpose in life is like a plant reaching towards the sunlight. If this is blocked, it creates stress and tension in the body, and the healthy movement of the Wood element becomes constrained. As the Wood Qi is being held back and bound, muscle tensions and migraines often result from these dynamics as well as difficulties in managing life stressors.
As acupuncture helps to restore the natural flowing movement of Wood, not only can headache symptoms be successfully treated, but the deeper connections to your ability to move forward and grow in life are able to reassert themselves.
How I helped a patient suffering with migraines
So what happened with the patient who described their almost daily, 7-10 out of 10, headaches?
After my first couple of acupuncture treatments with Laura, I began to notice a difference. I was not waking up in the middle of the night in pain anymore and I didn’t feel the need to sleep all day either. When starting the acupuncture treatments I would still experience migraines but they were not as frequent, maybe once or twice a week, and not nearly as painful. I have continued to get acupuncture treatments for the past 8 months or so for migraines and other pain experienced, and it has completely changed things in my life. I do get migraines from time to time still, but like I said not nearly as often. Not experiencing the pain of migraines I used to has been incredible and I no longer have to take any daily medications to reduce the migraines.
Migraines and Food
Sometimes your body can react to certain foods as a trigger for migraine symptoms. These can be foods that are eaten very frequently, food additives, occasional foods, or foods that only create problems when overeaten. Depending on the frequency of the headaches, keeping a food journal or paying attention to foods you consume on a frequent and regular basis could help you make a connection by seeing what happens when you eliminate particular foods. It can be best to eliminate likely suspects – – foods that are commonly known to trigger symptoms and then bring them back into your diet one at a time to see how your body responds. These kinds of Elimination food diets can be done on your own, and getting support and guidance can be helpful in addition to your acupuncture treatments.
Foods that can be linked to headaches
- Aged cheese (blue cheese, brie, cheddar, English stilton, feta, gorgonzola, mozzarella, muenster, parmesan, swiss)
- Alcohol (red wine, beer, whiskey, Scotch, and champagne are the most commonly identified headache triggers)
- Peanuts, peanut butter, almonds, and other nuts and seeds
- Fresh baked yeast goods (donuts, cakes, homemade breads, and rolls)
- Chicken livers and other organ meats, pate
- Smoked or dried fish
- Pickled foods (pickles, olives, sauerkraut)
- Bread, crackers, and desserts containing cheese
- Most beans including lima, Italian, pole, broad, fava, navy, pinto, snow peas, garbanzo, lentils, and dried beans and peas
- Onions, garlic
- Dried fruits (figs, raisins, dates)
- Soups made from meat extracts or bouillon (not homemade broth or bouillon cubes that do not have MSG or “all natural preservatives” on the label)
- Canned soups
- Cultured dairy products, sour cream, buttermilk, yogurt
- Caffeinated beverages, including coffee, tea and colas
- Aspartame and other artificial sweeteners
- Nitrate/nitrite-containing meats including hot dogs, sausage, bacon, lunchmeat/deli meats, pepperoni, other cured or processed meats
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG) containing products including soy sauce, meat tenderizer, Asian foods, and a variety of packaged foods. MSG is an often disguised ingredient; also look for these common aliases: monopotassium glutamate, autolysed yeast, hydrolysed protein, sodium caseinate
This list is suggestive (5). There are many different ways to explore making dietary adjustments to help with migraine treatments. The personalized strategizing that is possible to create in tandem with the objectives of acupuncture treatment is often most effective.
I have seen migraine symptoms dramatically reduce after 1 to 2 acupuncture treatments, but every headache case varies. Depending on the severity and frequency of the headaches or migraines you’re experiencing, I may recommend weekly acupuncture treatments for at least 4 weeks for starters.
Acupuncture can offer lasting relief for people challenged by migraine headaches. As relief is found, a state of well being is often achieved that is even greater than the absence of symptoms. As underlying patterns of imbalance are resolved life is often able to flourish in greater alignment with the fullness that nature so generously designs.
Laura Allmacher RN, LAc is an acupuncturist and Chinese medicine practitioner at Heart Spring Health, a holistic health clinic located in Southeast Portland, Oregon. Laura received her Master’s degree in Oriental Medicine from the National University of Natural Medicine. Dedicated to the healing arts since 2000, Laura brings a well of knowledge cultivated over years of experience with a background in western medicine as a registered nurse, in herbal medicine and natural health therapies, and as a professional astrologer. Specializing in acute/chronic pain, digestive issues, women’s health, and mental and emotional wellbeing, Laura loves to bring all her resources to life in support of individuals healing at the deepest and most transformational level they are ready for. Click here to learn more about Laura.
- K. Linde et al.: Acupuncture for Migraine Prophylaxis. Cochrane Database Syst. Rev. 1, CD001218. (2009)
- CDC | Acute Migraine | Acute Pain (2020-05-11)
- G. H. Collaborators et al.: Global, Regional, and National Burden of Migraine and Tension-Type Headache, 1990-2016: A Systematic Analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016. Lancet Neurol. 17, 954 (2018)
- R. B. Lipton et al.: Prevalence and Burden of Migraine in the United States: Data From the American Migraine Study II. Headache 41, 646 (2020)
- Foods & Drinks That Can Cause Headaches: How to Diagnose & Avoid. Cleveland Clinic (2020)
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