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How does acupuncture help headaches?

What is a headache?

Headache is defined as a pain rising from the head or upper neck of the body. The pain originates from tissues and structure that surround the brain because the brain itself has no nerves that give rise to the sensation of pain. Rather, the pain is caused by disturbance of the pain-sensitive structures around the brain. Nine areas of the head and neck have these pain-sensitive structures, which are the cranium, muscles, nerves, arteries and veins, subcutaneous tissues, eyes, ears, sinuses and mucous membranes. This pain may be a dull ache, sharp, throbbing, constant, mild or intense.

According to WHO (Fact sheet No277 Oct 2012)  

  • Headache disorders are among the most common disorders of the nervous system.
  • It has been estimated 47% of the adult population have headaches at least once within last year in general.
  • Headache disorders are associated with personal and societal burdens of pain, disability, damaged quality of life and financial cost.
  • A minority of people with headache disorders worldwide are diagnosed appropriately by a health-care provider.
  • Headache has been underestimated, under-recognised and under-treated throughput the world.


  • The causes of headache can be either one factor or a combination of factors.
  • Genetic predisposition especially in the case of migraine;
  • Head trauma due to accident;
  • Illness and infection: ear or sinus infection as well and colds and flu;
  • Environmental factors include weather changes;
  • Emotional factors such as stress, anxiety and depression;
  • Foods: beverages, caffeine, food additives
  • Chang in sleep or routine pattern;
  • Loud noises;
  • Physical activity or sun

TCM Treatment

In Traditional Chinese medicine, headaches are classified according to the overall conditions of the patient not only to the nature of the headache. Headaches are a result of disturbance or imbalance of Yin and Yang. The disharmony of the Liver system is the most common reason causing headaches. The Liver organ regulates the smooth flow of Qi; the smooth flow of Qi regulates physical and emotional activities which we need to operate daily. If there is impairment to the Liver functions i.e. a deficiency of the Liver Yin energy or the excess of Liver Yang energy; this will disrupt the smooth flow of Liver Qi resulting in headaches. These types of headaches are commonly in conjunction with emotional strain or stress, feeling of oppression in the chest, depression and anxiety.

Long term illness depleted the Kidney Qi it turns it deplete Liver Yin which then can trigger a headache. The Kidney deficient type of headaches shows mild to moderate intensity and is commonly in conjunction with weakness of lower back, low energy and lassitude.

The invasion of Pathogenic factors such as Wind, Damp, Heat and Cold can also trigger headaches. Damp resulting in a dull and heavy headache; a drop of temperature causes the headache to get worse.

The trained acupuncturist will diagnosed by looking at your tongue, taking your pulse and a full case history. Acupuncture points are being selected according to individual patient. Depending on individual condition, a combination of needling, moxibustion and cupping might be used.

Conventional Treatment

Conventional treatment mainly uses analgesic, anti-emetics, anti-migraine medications and prophylactic medications.

Kelly Yeo BSc Hons Acupuncture