Acupuncture for migraines.
A different approach to ease your miserable migraine mystery.
Migraine is one of the most common, miserable, misunderstood and debilitating conditions.
Unfortunately, it is also very common for migraine sufferers to live with their migraine misery for years, maybe a lifetime, without finding suitable, effective and lasting treatment options and relief.
In this blog I explore how acupuncture for migraines may help reduce and manage the condition and the unpleasant associated symptoms.
Acupuncture is one of several treatment techniques that have roots in the Chinese Medicine (CM) paradigm. A medical paradigm that views health and the functions and connections of the body and mind from a slightly different perspective to that of conventional medicine. A different perspective and approach are often what is needed when dealing with difficult, persistent or complex conditions. Acupuncture is increasingly being recognised as a possible, effective alternative or complement to standard migraine treatments.
What is a migraine?
A migraine is a severe and intense type of headache, which is accompanied by one or more, sometimes weird or scary, symptoms. These symptoms can include tingling sensations, flashing lights, visual disturbances or sensitivity to light, changes to your hearing, nausea, vomiting and tiredness. The headache itself is often unilateral (felt on one side of the head only) and the pain sensation difficult to describe for many sufferers, but throbbing, pressure or tight are words commonly used.
A migraine episode can involve several phases of progression:
- Prodromal (a ‘warning’ before actual onset)
- Aura (visual/neurological sensations)
- Attack / Headache
- Post-dromal (lingering symptoms, tiredness and ‘hangover’)
Not everyone experiences all the phases and the duration of each phase vary greatly from person to person. A migraine episode can last from a few hour up to a few days.
What causes migraines?
From a conventional medicine perspective, where migraines are mostly considered a neurological disorder, the exact causes and mechanisms of migraines are poorly understood.
From a Chinese medicine (CM) perspective, migraines are caused by an imbalance and are either due to an excess or a deficiency, or a combination of both. That’s a very simplified explanation, by the way. However, when looking through the eyes of the CM perspective and this paradigm’s understanding of the bodily functions and mind-body connections, there is a way to understand and explain most migraines.
It is well known within both medical paradigms, that migraines can run in families (genetics), that women are (3 times) more prone to suffer than men, and migraines can be set off by ‘triggers’.
Common migraine triggers include:
- Hormonal changes
- Food (e.g. salty, highly processed foods, sugar, chocolate, and preservatives and artificial sweeteners in foods)
- Skipping or missing meals
- Drinks (alcohol and coffee or other caffeinated drinks)
- Sensory stimulation (lights, smells, sounds)
- Over-exertion e.g. extreme exercise
- Sleep routines or changes to sleep cycle (e.g. jetlag, too little or too much sleep)
- Muscle tension
- Weather changes
Migraine triggers are unique to each person and give us CM practitioners a clue to where a person’s imbalances are and where to direct our attention when treating the person and their migraines.
So, let’s get to the point of what this blog is about and what you really want to know…how acupuncture for migraines can ease your misery.
Treatment of migraines
Conventional treatments of migraines generally involve trying to avoid triggers (if known) and taking strong medications (preventative and/or pain relieving) with possible adverse effects. This approach is rarely addressing the cause(s) of a person’s migraines.
In Chinese medicine we do not actually treat migraines, we treat the person.
This means the pathology, or in other words the development and causes, of your migraines will be uniquely different to any other person who suffers from migraines. Our diagnosis is detailed and will factor in your specific set of migraine symptoms such as exact head location of pain (e.g. top, back, sides or behind eyes), frequency, duration, associated sensations and symptoms, as well as your unique combination of health history, living, work and life situation. We’ll ask you questions that may initially seem unrelated to your migraines. Questions about your diet and digestion, sleep, energy levels, menstrual cycle, injuries, work, relationships, stress levels, exercise routine, and living environment. We will also check your radial pulses and your tongue. In addition, we will integrate findings from blood test results and/or scans such as x-rays or MRIs, when deemed necessary.
All this information is like pieces of a puzzle, which when put together by a qualified acupuncturist/Chinese medicine practitioner will form a picture of a pattern that can explain your imbalances and why you suffer migraines. These patterns have weird and wonderful names, such as Liver Qi Stagnation and Qi & Blood deficiency with a touch of damp accumulation. Just as weird, but not quite as impossible to pronounce, as your migraine medications!
Forget about the names and the weirdness, your practitioner will guide and explain. The important part is that your pattern elucidates the problem, which then determines the treatment needed. The treatment will be uniquely designed to not only give you relief when you suffer a migraine, but also deal with the underlying imbalances and causes of your migraines (and other symptoms), and therefore potentially prevent or at least minimise future and long-term suffering.
Acupuncture for migraines
Acupuncture treatments for migraines may differ according to your acupuncturist’s choice of acupuncture style. For instance, I mostly use a distal needling style (the Dr Tan Balancing method), which means, I rarely insert the acupuncture needles where the pain is. Instead I use strategically chosen corresponding points elsewhere on the body. For migraines I usually do what is called a ‘systemic treatment’ and use acupuncture points on both arms/hands and legs/feet. The exact points used will vary depending on your pattern and whether the goal is to prevent a migraine or treat an acute migraine episode. Regardless of style, strategy and points, the needles are always disposable and tiny, and the treatments generally very relaxing.
For optimal results a ‘course of acupuncture’ is usually recommended and required. This consists of frequent treatments initially (i.e. 1-3 treatments a week for 3-4 weeks), which will then be reduced gradually to a treatment once a week, then fortnightly, and then monthly. The accumulative effect of acupuncture is key and it is unrealistic to think one or two treatments will magically be enough to make a significant difference. The exact number and frequency of treatments will depend on how severe your migraines are, how long you have suffered migraines, how open you are to make the recommended diet and lifestyle changes that will be part of your treatment and how well you respond to acupuncture. Everyone is different!
I’m a qualified and experienced acupuncturist as well as herbalist and I often recommend a combination of acupuncture and herbal medicine to combat migraines quicker and more effectively. The herbs complement the acupuncture and it allows my clients to continue their treatments daily at home.
Similar to the acupuncture treatments the herbal prescriptions are also tailored to your individual type of migraine and pattern.
With an appropriate course of treatments, diet and lifestyle changes it is sometimes possible to completely eliminate migraines. In some cases, the goal and realistic outcome is to successfully manage the migraines by reducing the frequency, intensity and duration, minimise the need for medications and sick days, and ultimately improve enjoyment and quality of life.
If you’d like to know more or would like to live a better life with less migraines, please get in touch.
Dr Christina Tolstrup
BHSc Chinese Medicine – Acupuncture & Herbal Medicine
Christina Tolstrup works on a Tuesday from 9am-2pm.
138 Tanti Avenue, Mornington, VIC
03 5973 6886
References & reading:
Klaus Linde 1, Gianni Allais, Benno Brinkhaus, Yutong Fei, Michael Mehring, Emily A Vertosick, Andrew Vickers, Adrian R White: Acupuncture for the prevention of episodic migraine.
Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2016 Jun 28;2016(6):CD001218.
Trinh KV, Diep D, Chen KJQ. Systematic Review of Episodic Migraine Prophylaxis: Efficacy of Conventional Treatments Used in Comparisons with Acupuncture. Medical Acupuncture. 2019;31(2):85-97. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/3103187/