Relieving migraine pain

By Michael Côté

Migraines cause throbbing or pulsating head pain that can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days.

They usually start on one side of the head and are often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound. Some people experience visual disturbances, known as an aura, before or during a migraine.

Migraines can be moderate or downright debilitating, and are recurring.

According to the Mayo Clinic, allopathic medicine doesn’t really know what causes migraines. Genetics, environmental factors, and brain chemicals may play a role. Generally treatment focuses on managing migraine symptoms rather than curing it.

There are a variety of medications that may be prescribed for migraines like steroids, beta-blockers, antidepressants, anti-convulsants, botox, and pain relievers including opioids. 

Research has consistently demonstrated that acupuncture is significantly better for managing migraines than conventional care. 

Acupuncture is just as effective, if not slightly better, than prophylactic drugs and acupuncture has few, if any, adverse effects.

Interestingly, sham acupuncture (an attempt at a placebo for an invasive procedure for scientific analysis) was shown to be just as effective for migraines as conventional drug treatments.

Eleven acupuncture treatments given within a six-week period was just as effective as beta-blockers taken daily over a six-month period.

Clearly, acupuncture is a great option for migraines.

According to allopathic medical theory, acupuncture helps migraine symptoms by:

  • modulating cranial blood flow
  • promoting the release of vascular and immunomodulatory factors
  • releasing endorphins and other neurohumoral factors that change the processing of pain in the brain and spinal cord
  • reducing the degree of cortical spreading depression, plasma levels of calcitonin gene-related peptide, and substance P
  • affecting 5-hydroxytryptamine levels in the brain

According to Chinese medical theory, pain is caused by a lack of circulation. This lack of circulation can be from a number of factors, and the way we treat migraines depends on the cause of the poor circulation.

Is the digestive system nourishing the brain properly? Are the liver and kidneys filtering blood adequately? Are the internal organs working together in harmony or are they quarrelling?

These are just some of the things we want to find out when someone has migraines.

It’s not possible to delve into all the nuances of a Chinese medicine approach in a brief article, but here is a case to help you get an idea of how we approach migraines in Chinese medicine.

An 88-year-old patient, we’ll call Eugenia, came to me complaining of head pain with nausea. Her migraines started with onset of menopause at 40. Her mother had a history of migraines.

The pain was constant and dull with occasional throbbing and mostly concentrated on the frontal region of the head. On a pain scale of one to 10, if 10 is the worst, Eugenia’s pain was 8/10.

She couldn’t sleep without taking a sleeping pill, which she started 49 years ago. Other medications she took were doxepin, fesoterodine, and multivitamins. 

She had seen her family doctor recently and hadn’t had any CT scans.  Her pulses felt normal, but her tongue was red with a yellow coating, and trembling.  

I diagnosed Eugenia with YangMing headaches from Wind-Heat and Kidney Jing deficiency. 

In layman’s terms, I thought her migraines originated from a pathogen she got when was younger that caused residual inflammation and she had a kidney system that wasn’t functioning optimally.

Because she had this problem for so long, I suggested a course of 20 acupuncture treatments starting twice a week and then less frequently as symptoms improved.

I expected Eugenia to notice a difference within eight treatments. I also prescribed the herbal formulas Chuan Xiong Cha Tiao San with Yi Guan Jian taken 1.5-2 hours apart from her medications. 

Eugenia saw me twice one week, but then didn’t come back for a month and complained that she still felt the same. On the fourth treatment one week later, she said the pain was 6/10. Eugenia complained that it was taking too long to reduce the pain, so she stopped coming to see me.

Even though she didn’t follow the treatment plan she still had a 20 per cent reduction of pain. If she had followed the treatment plan, I think she would have had faster results and even less pain. 

It’s important to understand that acupuncture doesn’t immediately fix everything, but with time and a little patience, it can lead to less frequent and severe migraines by addressing underlying causes while offering a safer option than many medications.

For a summary of the research on acupuncture for migraines, including the Cochrane Review, please visit the British Acupuncture Council website.

Michael Côté is a registered practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine. He can be reached at the Okanagan Acupuncture Centre, 1625 Ellis St., in downtown Kelowna.


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