Headache Treatment With Acupuncture and Functional Medicine

BY HELENA AMOS, M.AC., L.AC.

Chronic headaches are one of the most common complaints with more than 10 million people in America suffering from them, ranging from severe headaches to debilitating migraines. And just as varied as the pain levels are the symptoms associated with them. Headache sufferers report experiencing everything from pressure, light sensitivity and auras to nausea, vomiting, severe throbbing pain and stroke-like reactions. In addition to the more commonly reported symptoms, I have also found other symptoms are often present, such as heart palpitations, anxiety, insomnia, menstrual and muscle cramps, and recurrent fatigue.

Despite the prevalence of clinical headaches, it’s clear that treating them is not a straightforward path given the wide range of symptoms that can occur. For this reason, Functional Medicine is a great option. This approach works by identifying the real causes of a patient’s health problems that lie in the altered physiology below the surface; the symptoms are an underlying dysfunction or an imbalance of bodily systems, and testing works to get to the root of the causes.

Identifying Headache Triggers

In my own clinical practice, I have found that patients reporting headaches arrive with symptoms associated with mineral deficiencies, especially magnesium; and additional client assessments have revealed sugar indulgence, poor diet, alcohol intake, stress and adrenal deficiencies. When these cases present, I have also identified a list of potential underlying conditions contributing to severe headaches and migraines, including:

  • estrogen/progesterone imbalance
  • high cortisol (stress hormone)
  • severe PMS
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
  • indigestion; and
  • candida overgrowth.

Some patients have problems with energy metabolism. Prediabetes, diabetes and usage of artificial sweeteners, as well as the fluctuation of insulin in the blood, can cause metabolic imbalances and consequent headaches. So can the lack of Vitamin B complex, especially B2, as well as CoQ10, or Coenzyme Q10, an antioxidant your body produces naturally for the purpose of cell growth and maintenance. 

Absorption issues in general have become a huge problem — today, people’s diets are disproportionately composed of processed “dead” food and preservatives. As a result, in some cases abdominal bloating after eating, lack of digestive enzymes, or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) cause headaches symptoms. A Functional Medicine approach using a micronutrient test is one of the best ways to look at the absorption profile of the patient and determine how to recommend nutritional supplements correctly.

Finally, headaches can be caused by musculogenic and discogenic causes — these refer to issues related to back pain and disc degeneration in the spine. There is usually some kind of trauma involved, which would be revealed as part of a patient’s personal medical history from an introductory assessment. In these instances, headaches can be treated through physical therapy manipulations of muscles, tendons, fascia and more.

The bottom line is headache treatment is handled individually depending on symptoms, test results and overall medical history.

Sample Headache Scenarios

Hormonal Imbalances

There is a class of headaches associated with premenstrual syndrome (PMS), perimenopause, and estrogen/progesterone imbalances (i.e., too much “bad” estrogen). In these instances, blood and saliva tests are conducted to determine levels of sex hormones, and for thyroid and adrenal function. Once a complete hormonal profile has been determined, specific supplements can be combined with Traditional Chinese Medicine treatments accordingly. DIM (Diindolylmethane), NAC (N-acetylcysteine, an antioxidant), and lipoic acid are often used to balance estrogen and help detoxify the liver. These steps are usually combined with conditioning the GI tract; they work to restore and support kidney and adrenal function, all of which help to reduce inflammation and reduce the severity of headaches and hormonal triggers. 

Magnesium Deficiency

Spastic headaches, as well as muscle cramps, constipation, palpitations, anxiety and insomnia can all signal a magnesium deficiency in the body. Depending on the patient’s need, various types of magnesium supplementation is available, including glycinate, citrate, and aspartate.

Food Allergies

One of the most common triggers for headaches is food allergies and food sensitivities. In addition to headaches, food sensitivities can cause bloating, indigestion, diarrhea and IBS, as well as muscle pain, eczema, and nasal congestion. Dairy/cheese and gluten sensitivities along with preservatives, dyes and sulfites are among the triggers most often reported. Computerized energetic testing (also known as an EAV assessment), as well as blood sensitivity testing, both in the Functional Medicine arsenal, can provide clues to which foods to avoid, thereby helping a patient avoid headaches, and other physiological triggers.

In some cases, a breath test or blood test can determine the presence of SIBO, when normal bacteria, which we all have in the gut, becomes more aggressive causing indigestion and/or headaches. The overgrowth of candida can be determined as well by clinical symptoms plus a stool test. 

Checking urinary organic acids can be helpful to find out about energy production and mitochondria function. This is particularly effective for assessing those patients who are experiencing brain fog, muscle ache, and fatigue along with migraines.

Acupuncture for Headaches

There is a large body of scientific research supporting the effectiveness of acupuncture for treating headaches and migraines, both alone and in combination with Functional Medicine approaches. Acupuncture can reduce the frequency and intensity of headaches by providing either stimulation or sedation of “Chi”, the energy flow, to the certain meridian(s) affected by the energy deficit or excess. Simply put, if energy, or Chi, is distributed equally in the body, then there are no headaches. 

An acupuncturist needs to know all entry/exit and connection points, much like an electrician, in order to provide equilibrium in the body. Applying successful acupuncture treatment is often classified by their allocation and Chinese medicine pattern. For example:

  • Top of the head headaches – related to faulty distribution to the Liver Meridian and Kidney Meridian deficiency
  • Side of the head – related to Gallbladder Meridian
  • Forehead – related to Stomach Meridian
  • Whole head and occipital lobe – related to Kidney Meridian

Patients can also benefit from learning certain acupressure points they can use to eliminate the headaches themselves. In my own practice, I choose individual points for them according to their allocation patterns. 

Lastly, it’s important to note that different headaches are related to the appearance of different emotional disturbances, like frustration and anger, fear and anxiety, and others. Acupuncture is very successful in addressing and restoring the body-mind-spirit equilibrium.

Clinical headaches are common, painful, disruptive and even debilitating. If you are among the sufferers in this category, understanding that relief is available through Acupuncture treatments and Functional Medicine is an important step to regaining control over your health and wellness. Proper education about the causative factors of your headaches, together with detoxification, quality sleep, proper hydration, stress management, and a clean diet are the keys to successfully terminating your symptoms and having a productive life.

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If you’re interested in exploring acupuncture & FM approaches for your chronic headaches, schedule a consultation with us to develop a treatment plan. Contact our office: 301-881-2898 or email doctorhelena@gmail.com.

Photo by Carolina Heza on Unsplash

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