Effective Complementary Treatment for Headaches
by Dr. Randy Martin, OMD
I was listening to a local talk radio show, and a commercial came on for headache control using over-the-counter pain medications. While I'm a big proponent of taking Western pharmaceuticals and using surgery on an as-needed basis, I feel that many of us use medications due to laziness or a lack of knowledge rather than real need.
When you have the facts, you’ll see that almost all headaches, including migraines, can be successfully treated without the use of Western medications. The goal should always be first to try to treat pain problems without the use of Western medications. Then, if that doesn't work, you can always take the “easy way out” and take a pill.
Out of all the cases of headaches that I see in an average year, there are only a few that don't respond to complementary healing methods. This segment will discuss the four most common types of headaches and the treatments that work for them most of the time.
1. The Migraine Headache:
I won't discuss the Western physiology behind the migraine, because if you get them, you most likely already know all about the aura that precedes the headache, how it can last a number of days, and that you feel better in a dark room, etc. Complementary medicine treats migraine headaches very successfully. As with all headache treatments, I first look at diet.
The important factors are to reduce sodium and increase protein intake to three or four times per day. Blood sugar and allergies often set off a migraine, so it's important to eliminate dairy, gluten, citrus, chocolate, and nuts. Staying out of direct sunlight is also recommended. I use liver and colon detoxification pills for about one month to balance and regulate the body and to throw off many of the accumulated toxins.
Supplements are very important, including magnesium, calcium, potassium, chromium, and a high-potency multi-vitamin. Acupuncture is indispensable and is done once weekly for ten weeks, or discontinued earlier when improvement is seen. The homeopathic remedies most often effective in treating migraine headaches are Natrum Mur, Lachesis, and Magnesium phosphoricum.
2. The Stress Headache (also called neck- and shoulder-tension headaches):
This type is usually caused from poor diet, ineffective coping mechanisms when under stress, or poor ergonomics at work. If your neck is tilted and your arms are too high at your computer, it will throw the spine out of alignment and cause the muscles in the back and neck to contract, resulting in poor blood flow.
For stress headaches, I use the same liver detoxification and colon detoxification program that I do for migraine headaches for the first month of treatment. The supplement program consists of doubling the magnesium-to-calcium ratio. I also always do a blood lab analysis to see if minerals, protein, and red blood cells are at healthy levels.
Acupuncture is performed once weekly until the desired results are achieved, which is usually from four to eight weeks. I sometimes use a homeopathic remedy for stress and muscle tension such as Kali phos, Avena sativa or Magnesium phos.
3. The Sinus Headache:
This headache can be caused by allergies and is often accompanied by a sinus infection, dizziness, and other flu-like symptoms. I use the same detoxification pills for this type, but I also emphasize digestion and cleaning out the colon more than in the previous two types. Supplements include a good probiotic and digestive enzyme to ensure assimilation and breakdown of food. Magnolia flower, Pe Min Kan Wan, or another such Chinese herbal formula is also used, depending on the exact symptoms. Acupuncture is done mainly on the face for the sinuses and on the back of the neck for relaxation of the muscles of the upper back, neck, and head. Homeopathy is not usually used unless hay fever symptoms are prevalent; if they are, I prescribe Allium cepa, Pulsatilla, or Kali Mur for the congestion. If there is vertigo or dizziness, I may also use Cocculus.
4. The Hormonal Headache (PMS or Menopause):
This is, by far, the easiest type of headache to cure. I prescribe the same two detoxification pills that I use for the previous three types of headaches, in addition to a Chinese herbal formula called Free and Easy Wanderer. Acupuncture is used twice per month: just after the menstrual period has ended and just before the period starts. The homeopathic remedies that have proven most helpful for the PMS type of headaches are Sepia, Natrum Mur, Lachesis and Nux vomica, depending on the specific symptoms.Note that treatments for all four common types of headaches may vary, depending on individual symptoms, and that the length of time it takes to cure the headaches will also vary, from about one to four months.
Generally, the shorter time you've had the recurring headache, the easier it is to cure it. The best time to treat headaches is when you are not actually in pain. Occasionally, headaches will resolve and never return after just one acupuncture treatment or one dose of the correct homeopathic remedy.
Often I'll get a call at my office from a desperate patient who has a throbbing headache and wants an immediate cure with acupuncture. Traditionally, the superior Doctor of Chinese medicine would only use acupuncture as a last resort.
First, he or she would use nutrition, diet, Chinese herbal treatments, and massage, and only if none of these worked would he or she resort to acupuncture. Sometimes these desperate patients leave my office with relief of their headache. But the importance of preventive treatment cannot be overemphasized.
Some patients request that I diagnose their problem from the point of view of Chinese medicine, and this diagnosis is much more complicated than in Western medicine.
For instance, the diagnosis of headache in Chinese medicine can be sub-divided into many different categories, and each one requires a completely different type of treatment.
These categories do not correspond to the above four types of headaches we find using the Western medical model. In practice, I usually combine the previous Western medical model with the Chinese medical model that follows. By using both, and getting the best from both, patients will have the combined benefit of East and West in their diagnosis and treatment options.
Acupuncture and Oriental medicine evolved in a culture with an entirely different view of the world and of the human body. It views the human body as a whole and uses terminology that reflects this different worldview.
Here are some of the most common diagnoses and treatments of headaches using Chinese medicine diagnostic categories:
1. Wind Cold:
This type of headache is usually encountered in winter or when you are exposed to a cold draft or air conditioning. Symptoms usually include aversion to cold, shivering, possible fever, cough, sneezing, a blocked or runny nose, and pale urine. Often the neck and shoulders are very tight, and the headache is worse in the back of the head.
One of the best ways to avoid this type of headache is to use a scarf to protect the back of the neck from the cold. The primary herbal formula used for this type of headache is Yin Chiao. The acupuncture points used are GB 20, 21, 2, and 43.
2. Wind Heat:
This type of headache feels as if the head is too full and is usually accompanied by a fever, thirst, sore throat, red eyes, dark urine, constipation, a rapid pulse, and a tongue that may have a bright red discoloration on the tip.
The most common herbal formulas for this type are Gan Mao Ling and Gentiana Formula. The acupuncture points used include GV 20, 4 Gates, and St 45.
3. Internal Dampness:
This is most frequent in damp areas in individuals who have a weak spleen condition, according to Chinese medicine. Common symptoms include a swollen tongue with teeth marks, bloating, dull headaches with a heavy feeling in the head, a feeling of being in a fog mentally, a runny nose, a lack of appetite or nausea, a craving for sweets, and a sticky tongue coating.
The most common Chinese herbal formula for this type of headache are Ginseng and Cardamon Formula or Prosperous Farmer Formula. Acupuncture points used might include Sp 4, 6, St 36, CV 12.
4. Blood Stasis:
This type of headache will have a stabbing pain and be long-term and chronic. It may come from an injury like whiplash or a chronic muscle spasm in the neck or shoulder that was never completely dealt with. Other sources might be from chronic allergies or chronic sinus problems.
The pain may feel as if a nail were being driven into the head, and there may also be painful menses with dark, clotted blood, or pain in the lower-left portion of the abdomen. The tongue might have a purple spot or have a purple tinge throughout. Formulas for this type of headache include Corydalin and Meridian Passage. Acupuncture points used include GB 21, 2, 43, St 30, 28, and Yin Tang.
This is just a small sampling of the Chinese diagnostic categories for headaches and their treatments. There are many more types of headaches according to Chinese medicine, and there are also many other Chinese herbal formulas and acupuncture points that I might use in treatment of the headache depending on the severity and longevity.
The recommended herbs mentioned above are not just painkillers. Rather, they will work to change the underlying condition that is causing the headache.
In addition to these formulas, I also recommend using herbal and natural pain relievers as much as possible. These have no side effects, cause no toxicity to your liver or kidneys, and are preferable to the use of drugs.
Some herbs are also designed to help you to get to sleep when you are in pain. In addition to Chinese herbs and acupuncture, I will usually recommend a homeopathic remedy and a dietary change of one type or another.
Often, headaches are caused by an allergy to certain foods, by low blood sugar, or by blood sugar swings. Diet can play an important role in regulating and treating headaches.
Finally, exercise is critical in the treatment of headaches. It’s important to keep the energy, or Chi, flowing smoothly, the thyroid functioning well, and the adrenal glands working optimally.
You can win the battle against headaches by educating yourself as to the type of headache you have, getting the appropriate testing, immediately starting complementary therapies, and sticking with the treatment. With this combination, you will have success. Headaches are one type of problem that almost all of us have at one time or another, and fortunately, most health insurance companies will pay for your treatment.