Treating Migraines and Tension Headaches with Acupuncture & Chinese Medicine

Posted by davidscrimgeour on March 18th, 2015

By Kathy Thorpe, MA, CHom, Boulder, Colorado

Millions of people suffer from headaches and it is estimated that up to 70% of all adults experience headaches at least once a year. They can be quite debilitating and interfere with work, relationships and the ability to enjoy life.  In some cases, they can be easily treated with a mild painkiller or just relaxation. In other cases, they occur on a regular basis and defy simple treatment. In extreme cases, the pain can linger and become so severe that it requires hospitalization and strong, narcotic painkillers to bring relief.

There are three types of primary headaches: tension headaches, migraines and cluster headaches.  Secondary headaches caused by other medical conditions such as sinus disease, allergies, dental disorders, head injury or brain tumors will not be discussed here. Acupuncturist David Scrimgeour in Boulder, Colorado maintains that acupuncture and Chinese Medicine are very effective in the treatment of tension headaches and migraines.  In fact, researchers from Duke University in a review of studies involving 4,000 patients with tension headaches and migraines reported that acupuncture worked better than drugs (including aspirin) to reduce the severity and frequency of chronic headaches. The Duke team found that 62 percent of the acupuncture patients reported headache relief compared to 45 percent of the people taking medications. (1) 

Tension headaches are by far the most common form of head pain. These recurrent headaches can last anywhere from minutes to days and are often experienced as a dull pressure, mild or moderate in severity. They are usually the result of stress and tight muscles in the neck, upper back and shoulders. 

The second most common headache, according to acupuncturist David Scrimgeour, is migraines which can manifest as moderate to severe pain usually on one side of the head. The pain is often described as pulsating or throbbing. Migraines can be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, general malaise as well as sensitivity to light or noise.  Sometimes, people have visual migraines or aural migraines which are experienced as flashing, jagged lights or spots in the vision. There may also be vertigo, imbalance, numbness and confusion. Migraines can be caused by stress in which case, the person will typically have a history of tightness in the neck and upper back. They can also be caused by hormonal shifts, blood sugar changes or physical activity. 
Cluster headaches tend to manifest in the face, jaw or around the eye with tearing and redness and the eyelid may droop. The nose may run or is blocked on the affected side.  They tend to be recurring, brief but extremely severe headaches. They are not well understood but tend to be similar to migraines in their history and pathogenesis.

The conventional treatment for headaches varies widely from Advil or aspirin, simple painkillers, liniments, rest and relaxation to strong painkillers and other medications that help prevent the severity of the headache such as Imitrex or other drugs from the class of triptans. In some cases, anti-seizure medications, blood pressure mediations or antidepressants are used to treat migraines.

Alternatively, there has been a lot of success treating headaches with both acupuncture and herbal medicine. According to David Scrimgeour, headaches have plagued mankind for a very long time and have been successfully treated with acupuncture and Chinese medicine without side effects.

Typically, when treating tension headaches with acupuncture, the focus is on relieving muscle tension in the neck and upper back as well as calming down the nervous system and the overall constitutional imbalance that contributes to the cause of the headaches. It is often called “Liver Qi Stagnation” or “Liver Wind” in Chinese medicine which refers to an imbalance in the energetic organ system responsible for the smooth flow of energy (qi) in the body.  In this pattern, the pulse tends to be very “wiry” and tight reflecting the underlying tension in the body. The treatment of migraines focuses on using acupuncture to relieve the pain during an attack and then balancing the body to prevent future occurrences. The pain of a migraine may be associated with constriction in the neck and upper back, but it can also be associated with the dilation of blood vessels and increased circulation in the head. For this reason, Scrimgeour maintains that acupuncture points must be carefully selected based on the unique presentation to release tension and normalize circulation in the head.

David Scrimgeour also uses several Chinese herbal formulas to help alleviate the tension and tightness in the body focusing on the head and neck. Some of the formulas he uses for treating chronic headaches and migraines include Pueraria Combination, Bupleurum Combination, Bupleurum and Dragon Bone Combination, Cinnamon and Angelica Combination and Ophiopogon and Asarum. A good formula for milder, tension type headaches, says Scrimgeour, is Cnidium and Tea Combination.

In addition to acupuncture and Chinese medicine, David Scrimgeour recommends an overall program that involves stress reduction and relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, tapping, massage and visualization.
David Scrimgeour practices acupuncture and Chinese Medicine at his clinic in Boulder, Colorado. He also serves the Longmont, Louisville, Lafayette and Erie areas in Colorado. For more information on relieving headaches naturally, he can be reached at 303 413-9596 or through his website:

Kathy Thorpe is a classical homeopath and a natural health writer and blogger who has been writing about alternative approaches to health and wellness for the past ten years. Prior to that, she taught English at U.C. Berkeley and at the University of Colorado.  She can be reached at 303 583-0179. 


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