Headaches are a pain, literally, and can ruin your ability to focus, limit productivity, and in some cases, take you out of commission for days at a time. There are many types of headaches, with a variety of causes. Additionally, the pain location and intensity point to different causes, and therefore different treatment approaches.
However, did you know there’s a treatment option that can be modified for nearly any type of headache? Acupuncture can often provide relief from headache pain within minutes, and can completely resolve isolated headaches. Chronic headaches may take a series of treatments before reaching full resolution.
Frontal headaches often respond well to stimulation of a point called Large Intestine 4, which is on the hand, in the web between the first finger and thumb. You can do acupressure here by finding a tender point in that muscle and holding pressure on it. If the headache is on the sides of the head, behind the eyes, wrapping around the whole head, at the base of the skull/top of the neck, or at the top of the head, the points will be different, often on the hands and feet.
Another naturopathic remedy is a process called hydrotherapy. The name of the game is contrast–you’ll need a basin of hot water and a basin of ice water. For migraines, try putting your feet in hot water and a washcloth dipped in ice water on the back of the neck. If that doesn’t work, switch the hot and cold applications (feet in ice water, hot cloth on neck). For tension headaches you can try this same approach, or you may try alternating hot and cold cloths on the back of the neck.
Classic tension headache
—Tight muscles pulling on connective tissue around skull and brain
—Emotional stress, poor posture, repetitive motion injuries
—Joint misalignment in the neck/upper back
—Constant cold wind like an air conditioner vent blowing on your head
—TMJ, clenching/grinding teeth, mild whiplash
—Upper neck, shoulders, base of the skull
—Jaw or temple (as in the case of TMJ)
—Acupuncture and hydrotherapy
—Massage therapy, stretching, yoga
—Chiropractic care if joints are misaligned or if muscle tension is chronic
—Magnesium citrate, glycinate, or malate
—Valerian, kava, turmeric, ginger, white willow bark
Eye strain or eye pressure
—Tight muscles in and around eyes
—Too much time staring at computer
—Reading for too long at a fixed distance
—Glasses/contacts prescriptions not correct
—Have eyes checked to see if a new prescription is needed
—Allergies, sinus congestion, sinus infection
—Drain sinus congestion through acupuncture
—Neti pot flushes (although if the sinus congestion is already consolidated, the liquid often cannot penetrate the more solid mucus)
—Reduce symptoms of allergies to prevent sinus headaches
For sinus infection (In my experience, herbs have about as much chance of resolving a sinus infection as antibiotics. Typically, if the antibiotics fail, the herbs usually work, and vice versa.)
—Chinese herbal formula Bi Yan Pian
—WishGarden’s Kick-Ass Sinus
For allergic congestion that isn’t an infection yet
—Pe Min Kan Wan, D-Hist, AllerDMG, Seasonal Shield, Zone 5 homeopathic (these lower your overall allergic response)
—Amino acid NAC (N-acetyl cystiene) to thin out mucus, support healthy immune/inflammatory function
—A disruption of normal mechanisms that regulate blood flow in the brain and surrounding tissues
—Inappropriate constriction of blood vessels, which triggers an increase in sympathetic nervous system activity and increases blood flow too much, causing pressure and pain
—Triggers include foods that increase histamines (red wine, chocolate, aged cheeses or meats), and food additives like aspartame and MSG
—Stress, lack of sleep, estrogen fluctuations
—Acupuncture (for a migraine in process, as well as lessening frequency and severity of migraines over time)
—Feverfew, butterbur, ginger
—Magnesium, riboflavin, 5HTP are often helpful, and
—Herbs designed to lower histamines like quercetin, nettles, bromelain, Vitamin C, pantothenic
Danger Zone: When a headache is not just a headache
Whiplash or head injuries–Even head injuries that seem mild can cause significant micro trauma to the delicate tissues of the brain. Sometimes this damage is not apparent until years or even decades have passed. Any head injury should be taken seriously. Aggressive use of antioxidants and anti-inflammatories is important (Turmeric and NAC in particular). Again, acupuncture can help reduce both acute and chronic inflammation in the brain or spine.
Sudden onset, severe headache–This feels like the worst headache you’ve ever had, and is an ominous sign of a potential brain hemorrhage and should prompt an immediate trip to the emergency room.
Rapidly worsening headache–If this happens with a fever and stiff neck, it could be a sign of meningitis and should prompt urgent or emergency care.
Gradual, subtle onset headache–This slowly gets worse over weeks to months and never quite goes away. Pain is steady, deep and dull, especially concerning if new neurological symptoms show up (isolated, unilateral numbness, tingling, or motor problems). A headache that presents like this could be a brain tumor and should be evaluated as soon as possible.
Should you experience any of the above scenarios, please seek medical care quickly.
Just because headaches are common and happen to most people doesn’t mean you should have to suffer through the pain! Stop by Peoples and ask for help finding the best products to ease your headaches, or book an appointment with a practitioner like myself to address more specific problems. Appointments can be made by calling 512-219-8600.
Becky Andrews, ND*, LAc received her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine and Masters in Acupuncture at Bastyr University. She specializes in complex, chronic, and difficult cases, especially those relating to digestive health, fatigue, mood, and detoxification. She works extensively with MTHFr and genetic challenges.
*Naturopathic doctors are not currently licensed in the state of Texas.
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