What is a migraine headache and what causes migraine headaches?
The direct cause of migraine headaches is unknown. However, experts believe that genetic as well as environmental factors play a role in the development of migraine headaches. Furthermore, it is also believed that migraines may be caused by changes in the brainstem that create imbalances in the chemistry of the brain. These chemical changes then affect the nerves in the head and face. Common triggers for migraine headaches include:
• Hormonal changes in women,
• Foods such as alcohol, caffeine, and MSG,
• Sensory stimuli such as bright lights, loud sounds, and strong scents,
• Changes in sleeping patterns,
• Physical exertion including sexual activity,
• Changes in the weather or barometric pressure, and;
A migraine headache can last anywhere from 4 to 72 hours. Typical symptoms include pain on one side of the head, a pulsating or throbbing pain, sensitivity to light, sounds, or smells, nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, diarrhea, and lightheadedness. Migraines are also commonly associated with auras. Auras are typically a set of strange symptoms that occur 10 to 30 minutes prior to the onset of a migraine. These symptoms include:
• Visual phenomenon such as seeing various shapes, bright spots, or flashes of light,
• Vision loss,
• Pins and needle sensations in the arms and legs, and;
• Speech or language problems.
How can acupuncture and moxibustion help resolve migraine headaches?
Since the cause of migraine headaches is unknown to biomedical specialists, there is little documented evidence as to how acupuncture and moxibustion change the physiology of the body to treat migraines. However, there are numerous clinical studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of acupuncture and moxibustion at reducing the intensity and frequency of migraines. There are also many documented cases wherein individuals cease to experience migraines after receiving acupuncture.
It is likely that acupuncture and moxibustion is effective in treating migraine headaches as a result of a combination of factors including the ability of acupuncture and moxibustion to improve blood circulation, regulate the nervous system, correct hormonal imbalance, and reduce muscle tension and pain in the body.
Traditional Chinese acupuncture theory states that the body is traversed by a series of channels responsible for circulating essential nutrients such as blood, qi, and fluids to all areas of the body. Of the twelve main channels, three primarily service the head and face. When a person experiences a headache the first question an acupuncture practitioner asks is where the headache is located on the head or face. If the pain is located on the forehead or along the front portion of the face or head, the Stomach Meridian is likely blocked. If the pain is located at the back of the head, the Urinary Bladder Meridian is likely blocked. If the pain is located on the sides of the head, the Gallbladder Meridian is likely blocked. By identifying which channel or meridian is experiencing pathology, the practitioner can then customize the treatment specifically for the individual pattern. This approach to treatment is much more personalized and effective as it caters directly to the needs of that particular person’s body.
How can herbal medicine resolve migraine headaches?
The Chinese Materia Medica contains thousands of herbs, all of which target a particular system of the body and carry out various functions for restoring balance. Included in this list of time-tested medicinals are herbs that reduce inflammation, relax muscle spasms, reduce pain, calm the mind, correct hormonal imbalances, and improve blood circulation. However, unlike their Western pharmaceutical counterparts, these herbs rarely cause side effects and never lead to dependency.
One of the unique qualities of Chinese herbal medicine is the use of formulas, a carefully balanced recipe of several single herbs. This allows the practitioner to custom build a formula designed to address the specific needs of each individual patient. For example, if your migraine headache are related to your menstrual period, your practitioner can alter a formula to both address the pain in your head as well as any complications brought about by your monthly cycle.
What other Eastern medical modalities can help resolve migraine headaches?
Many practitioners will use other therapies in addition to acupuncture and moxibustion to treat pain. These modalities include electro-acupuncture, cupping, gua sha, and external herbal applications.
Electro-acupuncture is a form of acupuncture in which pairs of needles are attached to a devise that generates continuous electric pulses between them. It is extremely effective for relaxing muscle spams and reducing pain.
Cupping is a type of therapy that involves the use of glass cups, which are suctioned onto the skin for a few minutes at a time. This therapy is used to pull toxins out of the body, eliminate obstructions of qi (energy), and relax the muscles.
Gua sha is a healing technique that involves the cutaneous stimulation of the skin in strokes using a round-edged instrument. The purpose of gua sha is to remove blood stagnation, which is considered pathogenic and a cause of pain. This results in increased circulation and metabolic processes, and often, the patient experiences immediate improvement of pain and stiffness.
External herbal application is the art of applying Chinese herbal medicinals to the skin in order to reduce inflammation, relax muscle spams, and alleviate pain. External herbal applications come in a variety of forms such as liniments, plasters, soaks, and oils.
What are the advantages of treating migraine headaches with Traditional Chinese Medicine?
Treating the Root and the Branch
While biomedical treatment strategies for migraine headaches vary in certain ways, the most common type of treatment is abortive in nature. This means that a person consumes a drug at the onset of a migraine headache. These drugs are designed to stop symptoms which have already begun.
Ultimately, this treatment style only addresses the symptoms (i.e. the branch) and will not resolve the underlying cause of the headaches (i.e. the root). As a result, the headaches will continue to return until the pathology responsible for it is eliminated.
The core philosophy of acupuncture and herbal medicine is to treat the root of the problem as well as to resolve the branching symptoms. The goal of treatment is not to mask the pain but to make certain it does not return. That is why, in addition to acupuncture and herbal medicine, practitioners will also recommend dietary and lifestyle changes that will compliment the treatment and help to eliminate triggers that can lead to the onset of a migraine.
Minimal Side Effects
Western medical practitioners will also prescribe pharmaceuticals for the purpose of preventing migraines such as cardiovascular, anti-seizure, and antidepressant drugs. These drugs do not always eliminate migraine symptoms and come with their own set of side effects.
Prescription cardiovascular medications can cause dizziness, lightheadedness, and drowsiness. It is also likely that you will be expected to take these types of drugs in the long-term
Prescription anti-seizure drugs can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, hair loss, and dizziness.
Prescription anti-depressants can cause nausea, insomnia, anxiety, dizziness, decreased sex drive, weight gain, dry mouth, diarrhea, constipation, tremors, and sweating
On the other hand, acupuncture produces little to no side effects if administered by a trained, licensed professional. Acupuncture side effects include bruising at the site of needle insertion and dizziness. In fact, people who get acupuncture for migraine headaches are often surprised to discover that acupuncture not only decreased the frequency and intensity of their headaches but improved their sleep, digestion, bowel functions, and energy level.