April Crowell, Dipl. ABT (NCCAOM), AOBTA CI & CP, CHN

Headaches plague thousands of Americans each year.  They are one of the most common complaints I hear in my practice an Amma Therapist. Rare is the person who hasn’t suffered through a headache.  In fact, according to WHO (World Health Organization) about half of the adults in America will have a headache each year–and many of those suffer headaches repeatedly. 

As with other disharmonies, Chinese medicine’s approach to headaches is different from western medicine’s.  CM practitioners focus on the treating the acute (relieve the pain) and then work to find the cause or root patterns causing the headaches.  Yes, you read that as a plural–headaches.  Most headache sufferers are prone to several different types of headaches–ouch.

First, a detailed Chinese medicine assessment is made through review of medical records, western diagnosis, medicines, history, inquiry regarding pain, duration, possible triggers, and location of pain.  And tongue and pulse assessment reveal an incredible amount of information, especially if they can be taken both during a headache and when the client isn’t suffering from a headache.  I should note, if a client comes in extreme pain, inquiry may have to be very brief so that treatment can begin as soon as possible.  Treatments include the manipulation of acupressure/acupuncture points, additional techniques (gua sha, moxa, cupping, etc.), along with herbal and nutritional recommendations.  The duration of treatment varies depending on underlying patterns. This is often confusing for many clients who may just want the situation resolved.  However, most headaches are often part of complex patterns that take time to unravel.

My purpose with this blog is to give an overview of the patterns according to Chinese medicine that can lead to headaches. Covering the western causes and assessment would make for a very cumbersome blog, instead I will drop in little side notes where the western and eastern meet.

Causes of headaches according to Chinese medicine

There are many different patterns that cause headaches in Chinese medicine.  Let’s take a quick look, just an overview so I don’t give you a headache.

Exterior Pattern Headaches 

  • Wind/cold–Tight and gripping, often creeping up the neck and tightening the occiput. The headache you get after being out in the cold and wind to watch a game.
  • Wind/heat–Sharp, stabbing pain, can feel like a tight band on the head. You played in the sun too long.
  • Wind/damp–Predicting weather changes? Heavy, muzzy feeling in the head that improves when the weather shifts.
  • Blood stasis caused by injury–That headache you got after the car wreck.  Can show up at the injury site or across the head.  Pain from stagnation is fixed and stabs like little needles.
  • Wind & Toxins–Inversions, smog, smoke and toxins…so we can add toxic to wind heat and damp.  It travels along the Gallbladder channel, wrapping around the ears and temples.  Ouch!

Interior Pattern headaches

Excess Pattern Headaches–these arrise because there is too much of something (Qi, Blood, Fluid, Dampness) in a channel or system.  We get a pressure effect.

    • Liver Yang Rising–Red eyes, ringing in the ears, sharp, stabbing pain. Often unilateral (one sided).  Pops up after you’ve gotten really ticked off.  We seem them a lot in the spring when tempers rise.
    • Liver Fire–Like above, only worse.  Often unilateral.  Migraines are examples of Liver Fire Headaches.
    • Liver Wind–Sharp stabbing pain that is moving, usually along the gall bladder channel and the temples on the head.  Seen in Epilepsy and Bell’s Palsy, and cluster headaches.
    • Stagnation of Cold in Liver-Stabbing, tight and constricting, improves with warmth added to the abdomen or Liver points on the feet.
    • Damp–Muzzy, dull, heavy and sinking feeling. Often stirred up when the weather changes or you eat very phlegm forming foods.
    • Phlegm–Nagging and persistent. Clients often feel that their head is full and heavy.  The pulse and tongue will reveal accumulation of phlegm.  These headaches often accompany patterns like allergies, asthma, MS and fibromyalgia.
    • Phlegm wind–Similar to above, except the headache may move and is often aggravated by windy conditions.
    • Retention of food–Food is sitting in your stomach. Causes a pressure headache behind the eyes (the Stomach channel begins below the eyes) and on the forehead.  These headaches may plague those with very compromised digestive systems, those who eat hurriedly, over eat or indulge in too many rich foods.
    • Stasis of blood-Stabbing and persistent in nature.  Some women may get these prior or during their cycle when the blood is trying to circulate properly. The tongue will have a purple hue.
    • Stomach heat–Throbbing and intense, felt in the forehead and behind the eyes, possibly to the top of the head.  Often felt by those who have GERD, acid reflux, IBS or Crohn’s disease.

Deficiency Pattern Headaches

    • Qi Deficiency-dull and aching, can creep up the neck and cover the head.  Improves quickly with rest.  The teenager who just need a nap to recharge.
    • Blood Deficiency–dull and aching, covers the whole head.  Feels better with pressure and rest.  Women may get these headaches after their menstrual cycle if they bled too heavily or didn’t replenish blood properly. Undernourishment can also lead to these headaches.
    • Yin Deficiency–Dull, aching and nagging.  They are accompanied by sensation of heat in the chest or hot flashes and thirst.  This is a more severe deficiency and the headaches can sometimes last for days. These may also show up for women during menopause or for those who are on heavy medical treatments that deplete yin.
    • Jing Deficiency–Ever wonder why one child in the family is vital and strong and one is weak and deficient?  They were born with it, and it is a direct indicator of the parent’s health at the time of conception.  Often overlooked or not readily understood in western medicine, Chinese medicine places heavy emphasis on the parent’s general health, at the time of conception and the mother’s health during pregnancy.  It’s the child’s blue prints and parents can only offer what they have available. If the parents are ill, overworking, over or under-exercising, eating inappropriately, using excess drugs or alcohol it will have an outcome on the child’s health.  After conception, the mother’s Jing (essence) supports the baby through pregnancy.  Shock, trauma, excess exercise, overwork, excess sex, emotional upsets and inappropriate diet all impact the unborn child and in certain conditions can lead to health problems later in life.  The headaches may show up early in childhood and are often of a deficient nature, being dull and nagging.  They improve with rest and adequate nutrition.

Enough types of headaches?  Likely.  Unfortunately, it is very common for those who suffer headaches to suffer from one or more type of headache.  For example many migraine sufferers may have Qi deficiency or tension headaches in between attacks.  A woman may have a blood deficiency headache after her period, may suffer a Liver Qi Stagnation headache before her cycle.


A few recommendations for headaches.

This is a tough one, because to effectively treat headaches we need to pin point the pattern, luckily there are a few tricks that can benefit almost any headache type.

Feel your ears and forehead–yes, really. If they are cold, cover your head with a hat and warm up your toes. If you are hot,  drink mint tea.

Cover your neck–if your neck muscles tighten and contract, it will obstruct the Qi and blood flow to your head making a headache worse.  Get out those scarves.  If your neck is tight use kudzu and follow recommendations for wind.

Clear congestion-Patterns with dampness or congestion will feel better when the sinuses are cleared up. Think onions, radishes and citrus peel.

Use mint--Many headaches have their roots in Liver patterns and  stagnation.

Get quiet and relax–Get away from noise and excessive light, close your eyes. Get in out of the cold and try to settle down.  Maybe some lovely meditation or quiet music.

Caffeine–Yep, it can have medicinal purposes, and can be helpful for those who don’t normally take it.  We aren’t working on creating a habit here, just handling an acute situation.

If you are predisposed to headaches get in for Amma or acupuncture to find the root patterns and set up appropriate herbal and nutritional recommendations.

Here’s to a headache free world.

April Crowell

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