Chronic cluster headaches and migraines – insights from a Chinese Medicine perspective.

As I sit down to write this article, I realise it is not as easy a task as I thought it would be.

As a Chinese Medicine practitioner I was trained to treat people, not diseases; to consider the whole human being and not just symptoms. I find it very challenging to write about cluster headaches and migraines (ch&m) without relating them to the unique and multifaceted person who experiences them.

In our culture we are used to separating and dividing everything, but when it comes to life and physiology I am not sure it is always an advantage. If you suffer from chronic ch&m, perhaps one of the first things to consider in your efforts towards healing, is the pattern of your whole body and mind. That is simply because what is happening in your head is always in relationship with the function and habits of all your systems, organs and mind. They are one organism.

Although it is true that treating symptoms in isolation from the rest often gives us relief, but it may not result in a real transformation of your pattern and long lasting change.

If you suffer from chronic ch&m, I am sure you would agree that they can be so debilitating that it is impossible to function. So much so, that life and daily schedules need to be organised around them. I would like to encourage you to remain persistent determined! It often pays off!

Common triggers and causes

There is a tendency to look for the onecause of such headaches. Is it structural? Is it stress related?

In my observation there is no one cause or one trigger for ch&m. It is often a combination of things that brought your body to a dead end. Such causes and triggers may be one of the following:

Musculoskeletal, emotional, hormonal, neurological, viral, accumulation of toxic chemicals or heavy metals, old trauma to the head, sinus related (strep) and a nutritional deficiency. (of course one should check to eliminate any other causes such as tumors, aneurysm or cyst).

Note that according to Chinese Medicine, the liver almost always plays an important roll in the pathology of headaches. This is significant because if you resort to using medication regularly to survive daily migraines, in the long term you are putting more pressure on your already burdened liver. This means that you are gaining short term relief but long term you are deepening your condition. In addition, if there is an emotional aspect (which is very common) to your ch&m, it is your liver that is directly involved in the process. So apart from working on the true physical cause of your ch&m I invite you to be open to the possibility that there maybe something deep inside you that needs resolution.

If we understand that ch&m are a result of physical, emotional and mental changes, it means that a multi faceted approach is important to address all the root causes for each individual. It also means that real changehas to take place in the individual. I am emphasising this because often people want their headaches to go away but they are not willing or don’t know how to change. So please remember that cellular/emotional/mental patterns do not tend to spontaneously change unless you make an effort to do something different!

The Chinese understanding of cluster headaches and migraines

As I mentioned, Chinese Medicine does not separate the body from the mind. Although it is multi-faceted in its approach, there is a simplicity in its view and understanding of physiology and pathology. Because of the great complexity of ch&m, a simple approach is a great advantage in my opinion.

Chinese Medicine and particularly acupuncture do not treat disease but introduces signals the body to create energetic changes which invite the body to change its pattern from pathological to physiological. That can be an advantage especially when the physical cause of disease is not clear.

One very simple way to understand headaches according to Chinese Medicine is to divide them into two main categories:

Deficient headaches– meaning there is not enough energy, something is missing. These tend to be more dull and improve with addingthings like pressure or eating.

Excess headaches– there is too much energy that rises up to the head. These headaches tend to be more sharp and acute. In this case we need to removeexcess energy. Ch&m fall under this category - There is too much energy accumulated and any input such as noise, light is all too much! You just want to be left alone in a dark and quiet room. This accumulated excessive energy can often be relieved by vomiting. It is a way for the excess energy to escape. In many cases behind an excess headache there is also some deficiency that would need to be addressed later on.

Here is one example of a migraine: say there is a viral invasion in the phrenic, vagus or trigeminal nerves. The toxins produced by the virus cause an inflammatory reaction that can be felt along the pathway of these nerves. Pain may travel to the temple, temporal bones around the ear, posterior to the SCM muscle and occiput (Vagus), behind the eyes and jaw (trigeminal) or forehead (Phrenic).

In Chinese Medicine that would be considered an excess of coldness attacking the energy of the gallbladder or stomach pathways and Kidney energy (which governs nerves). There is too much energy that needs to be dispersed.

A treatment for this, will typically include acupuncture to offer new signals in order to change the current pattern as well as herbal or dietary advice to change the terrain in the body in order to subdue the virus.

Within the second category of excess energy, there are a few patterns that are common for ch&m. Patterns often overlap and in reality are not always straight forward, however, this may help you to differentiate your own pattern from others. Do keep in mind that symptoms should always be considered within the context of everything else that is taking place in your body.

· If your headache appears predominantly in the temple (can also be in the jaw, behind the eyes, around the ear or temporal bones and occiput) – indicating an imbalance in the energy of the gallbladder. If there is a full aura, desire to be in a dark space and headache is relieved by vomiting, there is a gallbladder involvement.

· If your headache appears predominantly in the forehead that may indicate an imbalance in the energy of the stomach.

· If your headache appears predominantly in the occiput or all over the head, this may indicate that there is an imbalance in the bladder energy.

I hope this has given you some insight as to how ch&m is viewed through the lens of Chinese Medicine. As you can see, a holistic approach is vitally important to address the root cause of ch&m for each individual.

Remember, when you embark on a healing journey for your ch&m, consider two things. One - you must be willing to change. Two - acknowledge the whole, not just the localised symptoms. Observe yourself to determine which of the possible causes and triggers may apply to you and make changes accordingly.

I invite you to contact me if you have any questions.

In health,


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