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Headaches & Migraines

Headaches are a very common health issue for patients. Here are a few startling statistics: 76% of all women in the United States report having a headache at least once a month: 57% of all men report the same (Porth). And that is just the number of people reporting headaches!

Headaches are one of those conditions that most people overlook by popping an aspirin and just going about their day. And if they are mild or you are so accustomed to having them, then you may not even consider them to be a condition worth treating. That is until they occur with some regularity or, even worse, express themselves as incapacitating migraines. If you or anyone you know suffers from migraines, then you are well aware of the excruciating, I-need-to-stop-everything-I-am-doing-and-crawl-into-a-dark-silent-room-for-a-few-hours kind of pain. In this article, we will explore the various types of headaches, their possible triggers and causes, and ways to treat them and prevent them from recurring all from both a Western and Chinese Medicine perspective.

Types of Headaches

46 million Americans report getting migraines with 75% of those being women (WebMD.com). Migraines tend to be throbbing in nature, unilateral, generally center around one eye, can last for 1-2 days, and get worse with physical activity. They can often be accompanied by nausea and vomiting, light and sound sensitivity, and some may even get a preceding aura, which can be visual disturbances like double vision, flashes of light, sparks in the visual field or neurological symptoms like temporary transient muscle pains or unusual sensations. There are no proven causes for migraines, but some theories include decreased levels of serotonin functioning, inflammation affecting nerve conduction in the head, and hormonal variations especially estrogen in a woman’s cycle, which can certainly account for the frequency of migraines occurring consistent with a woman’s cycle and the predominance of women suffering from migraines as compared to men (Porth).

Cluster headaches occur mostly in men, can be severe and unrelenting, unilateral, come on suddenly and in clusters over a period of weeks or even months and then not occur again for a long while. They tend to come on within 10 to 15 minutes and last up to 3 hours. They may occur with red eyes and tearing, nasal congestion, a runny nose and forehead sweating.

The most common type are tension headaches, which tend to be dull and aching, diffuse in location and often occur with stress, anxiety, jaw tension and caffeine withdrawals. In fact, jaw tension, often called Temporo-Mandibular Joint disorder, or TMJ, can easily refer pain to other parts of your head causing headaches.

The often-overlooked sinus headaches occur around the nose, eyes and the forehead, and occur most frequently with nasal and sinus congestion consistent with sinus infections, whether obvious or not. And the last headache I see quite often is one that comes from fatigue, hunger, or at the end of a woman’s cycle. In Chinese Medicine, we refer to these as deficiency headaches. Here, either we are so depleted that we do not have enough energy to raise to our heads, or as a woman loses menstrual blood without replenishing it through sufficient land-based protein intake, then there may not be enough blood to nourish the vessels of the head.

It is important to recognize that if you do not typically get headaches and all of a sudden you begin getting severe intractable ones that disturb your sleep and come along with drowsiness, visual or limb disturbances, or altered mental status, you need to notify your doctor or go to the ER immediately as this may reflect a much more serious condition that requires immediate medical attention.

Causes & Triggers

Other than in the case of deficiency, headaches and migraines are caused when blood vessels in our head swell, creating pressure causing us pain. Our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) acts in part to control the dilation and constriction of our blood vessels to help us adapt to stress in our daily lives. If we interfere with that functioning, whether by choice through stimulant use like sugar, nicotine, caffeine, and stress or our ANS is hyper-sensitive to environmental factors like odors, then our system cannot find its own balance and homeostasis. Other triggers can include red wine, cold cuts and aged cheese that contain the amino acid tyramine which is known to trigger migraines in some individuals.

Another extremely common contributing factor in our overly sedentary lifestyles is poor posture. We were not designed to sit at a desk staring all day at our computers. In doing so, we teach our muscles to exist in a very limited range of motion, tightening our shoulders and necks to support this heavy head of ours. With the thousands of people I have treated in the last 11 years of working with patients, I’d be hard pressed to find some without a tight neck and shoulders. Tight muscles lead to poor circulation which allows too much blood to pool in the head and not drain from it.

The triggers for sinus headaches are quite different. It is an unavoidable fact that we are surrounded by toxic influences in the air we breathe, the food we eat, the products we use on our bodies and the very real adverse effects of stress on our bodies. And the sinuses are one area that such a confused immune system can communicate with us.

Seldom will there be just one trigger; invariably there are a few that you stack one on top of another, until you start to notice the consistent presence of headaches or you get leveled with a nasty migraine.

Treatments & Prevention

The obvious most common remedies for headaches are to take over-the-counter (OTC) non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) like aspirin, Tylenol, and Advil. Helpful in the moment, but by no means do they actual address the underlying problem. And long-term use can be quite damaging to your digestive system, your liver and your kidney function. For migraines, you may be prescribed a caffeine-based medication to be taken at the onset of the migraine. You may even be prescribed anti-depressants, sedatives, anti-seizures medications, and the list goes on. These can once again be helpful in the moment or keep the headaches at bay, but are still not addressing the real issues at play.

One of the most important things I ask my patients to do, especially when they are unclear about the when’s and how’s of their daily chief complaints, is to do a Food Mood Journal. Creating awareness around your patterns of eating and emotional states is a powerful way to teach yourself to fish. Here we may modify the journal can call it a Food-Mood-Headache Journal. For 7 days, you write down what you eat, when you eat, how you feel before and after, and the occurrence, severity, and location of your headaches or migraines. When we can identify your pattern, you can begin to make changes.

Then there is stress. Everyone who walks into my office can benefit from learning how to handle stress better. The goal is to handle stress early enough and well enough so that it does not manifest in our bodies in the form of things like headaches and migraines. Are you tightening you shoulders and neck from computer use, or is that “just where you hold stress?” Do you cope by eating sugar and sweets? Does stress interfere with your sleep causing you to drink 4 cups of coffee a day to stay awake? Welcome to the slippery slope of stacking triggers.

Acupuncture and Chinese herbs are extremely effective in dealing headaches and migraines. One of my greatest pleasures is when a patient comes in with a headache or migraine and within seconds of touching a point in their foot, their pain eases. The look on their face is priceless! Getting rid of the pain in the moment is not that difficult. The real challenge comes in identifying the patterns of imbalance that contribute to the frequency and severity of your headaches. It involves a lot of detective work and a willingness to leave no stone left unturned. And as we reveal your particular causes, we can explore the various ways you can help yourself: getting acupuncture and massage, exercising, better food choices, meditation and lightening your daily toxic load by, for example, getting an air filter for your bedroom.


Headaches and migraines can be very debilitating and frustrating to deal with. Self-medicating may get you through the day, but may not keep tomorrow from being just as painful. There is no reason to continue suffering. Sometimes, enough is enough and it is time to do something about it.


Here is a list of informative websites on headaches and migraines:

1. WebMD.com
2. Headaches.org
3. Migraines.org
4. Medlineplus.gov
5. AmericanHeadacheSociety.org


1. Pathophysiology: Concepts of Altered Health States, Carol Mattson Porth, Lippincott Publishing, 2002.
2. WebMD.com


© Jordan Hoffman, L.Ac., Dipl. OM, 2010. All Rights Reserved.

The information presented here is not medical advice, is not intended as medical advice, and is intended to provide only general, non-specific information related to Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture and is not intended to cover all the issues related to the topic discussed. You should consult a licensed health practitioner before using any of this information.

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2001 S. Barrington Ave. Ste 116 Los Angeles, CA 90025  l  21201 Victory Blvd. Ste. 135 Canoga Park, CA 91303  l  310-729-9061  l  © Jordan Hoffman Acupuncture 2010
This site and any articles on this site are not medical advice and are not intended as medical advice and are intended to provide only general, non-specific information related to Chinese Medicine and acupuncture and are not intended to cover all the issues related to the topic discussed. You should consult a licensed health practitioner before using any of the information on this site and any articles.