Migraine Headaches and Traditional Chinese Medicine

by Dr. Dongfeng Zhou, AP, DAOM

The Migraine Headache


Headaches, including tension headaches, migraines, and cluster headaches, are a common problem. According to the World Health Organization, headaches are the third most common cause of lost work days. Migraine headaches are more common than most people know. About 25% of women and 10% of all children will have a migraine. Because most people cannot function to work on a migraine day, approximately 160 million workdays lost to migraine each year in the US alone. Migraines cost the US economy approximately $36 billion a year in healthcare and lost productivity. Some people suffer one or two days a month, and some are classified with chronic migraine, having daily symptoms.

What are the Symptoms of Migraines?

Migraines are classified by having two or more symptoms:

• moderate to severe one-sided throbbing, pulsating headache pain

• light sensitivity with possible blurred vision or auras

• sound or smell sensitivity

• nausea or vomiting

• worse with activity

• lasts hours or days

Causes and Conventional Treatments of Migraine

Many times, the cause of a migraine is unknown. There are triggers such as stress, hormone changes, and certain foods. Migraines can cause an inflammation of the nerves and blood vessels of the head. It is believed that serotonin may be a key neurotransmitter associated with the beginning of pain.

Many people self-medicate with over-the-counter pain products such as ibuprofen, Tylenol, or aspirin. Symptoms can be so severe that doctors prescribe narcotics, antidepressants, and a whole host of other medications with strong side effects. Many of these have a “rebound” effect of worsening pain when the medication wears off. All of these medications have potential health risks for use as well, from kidney failure to liver failure to dependency and even death. It is no wonder people are looking for another alternative for migraine pain!

Migraines and Chinese Medicine

As early as 221 BC, Chinese medical literature clearly described headaches and their treatments. One-sided headaches are outlined with a lack of desire to “go outside, pointing to a migraine. Chinese medicine looks at the whole person, and not just the headache. Treatments and diagnoses are based on the location and type of pain, including what makes the pain better or worse. Headaches can be rooted in a pathogen (such as a virus), an excess in the body like stress, or a deficiency in the body. A good diagnosis will treat the headache symptoms while helping treat the underlying cause of the headache to prevent future problems.

Acupuncture Treatments for Migraine

Sometimes the headache can be complex with multiple issues that need treatment.

Other therapies used to treat migraines include Tui Na Chinese Massage, acupressure, cupping, moxibustion, and guasha. Meditation, yoga, and Taichi have been shown to help reduce migraine symptoms and prevent some migraine triggers. These practices focus on reducing stress, deep breathing, and relaxation. Many chronic migraine sufferers find relief with these practices.

Herbal Medicine and Migraines

Herbs can play a significant role in healing. This is especially true for migraine treatment and prevention. It is important to have a proper diagnosis made by an acupuncture physician and to avoid self-diagnosis. In Chinese medicine, the headache patterns often relate to the Liver. The Liver is associated with stress, and its function is to help the Qi and Blood circulate properly in the body. This makes sense from a Western perspective as well because the liver breaks down toxins, hormones, and other substances and provides the glycogen needed when the blood sugar drops or stress hormones are activated.

Depending on the pattern, there are a number of herbal formulas that can be used to treat migraine. The formulas may be chosen based on the location of the headache, accompanying symptoms, or whether they have an excess or deficiency pattern. Then, the formulas can be tailored to the individual patient. Herbal medications are not a one-size-fits all form of medicine. Rather, they are tried-and-true formulas with very few side effects. Many of these plants have been used for thousands of years and have been proven safe by both clinical study and the test of time. Be sure to let your acupuncturist know what medications and supplements you are taking to ensure there are no herb-drug interactions.

Dietary and Lifestyle Choices

While headache pain leaves most people feeling helpless, there are ways to prevent them. Because most migraines are triggered by stress and diet, daily choices can make a huge impact.

Helpful Rules to Avoid Migraines:

• Avoid trigger foods such as cheese, chocolate, MSG, and citrus.

. Avoid cured meats or fish.

• Avoid caffeine and alcohol.

• Avoid inflammatory foods such as sugars, corn, soy, dairy, etc…

• Eat organic fruits and vegetables.

• Drink eight glasses of water each day to avoid dehydration, which worsens headaches.

• Practice relaxation. Take time to breathe, meditate, do Taichi or yoga.

• Do light to moderate exercise daily to reduce inflammation and improve circulation.

• Unplug from technology for several hours each day. Sometimes blue light can trigger headaches and eye strain, and the “constant connection” that technology brings can keep the body in a heightened state of stress.

• Get plenty of rest. People who sleep 6-8 hours a night have fewer headaches than people who sleep 4-6 hours.

Dr. Zhou Treats Migraines

While conventional medicine aims to treat or prevent the symptoms of migraine with medications, Chinese medicine relieves headache symptoms while treating the underlying cause of the pain. A combination of acupuncture, herbs, and dietary and lifestyle choices can help patients reduce or eliminate migraine pain. This not only helps the patient feel better, but it helps the patient function in daily life with fewer days lost to headache pain.

Dr. Dongfeng Zhou is an expert in treating headache pain, including migraines. She is compassionate in her care for headache sufferers. She can diagnose and treat the pain with acupuncture and herbs as well as important tips to prevent recurrence.

Would you like more migraine-free days? Call Zhou Wellness to set up your appointment. Same-day appointments may be available. Don’t lose another sick day or social event to migraine pain.


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Ridsdale, Leone. Self-Management Migraine Headache Education (SHE). ISRCTN, 5 June 2016,