Podcast: Play in new window | Download
It is estimated that a staggering seventy to ninety percent of the population experiences at least one tension headache at some point during their lifetime. Add to this that tension headaches are one of the most common types of headaches for people to experience and it makes sense to educate yourself on the best types of treatment available. Increasingly, many are finding a combination of Chinese medicine and western medicine to be a well-rounded and effective approach.
Most people have experienced a headache before, but what may be different is how often it occurred or how severe it was. Some individuals may experience a headache once every few months when work and life become busy, or they are no longer exercising or eating right. Others may experience them much more frequently, like five to seven times a month or more, and without having any idea what could be causing them.
Headaches can fall into several different categories, including but not limited to migraine, cluster, and tension headaches. Individuals that tend to have headaches on a frequent basis are usually experiencing tension headaches.
Regardless of which type a person has, it could have the potential to cause major disruptions to their daily schedule and activities, such as meeting work deadlines, spending quality time with the family, or joining friends for an outing.
Fortunately, a combination of Chinese medicine and western medicine can give some hope to those needing relief from tension headaches.
Symptoms of a Tension Headache
How do you know if your headache is a tension headache? The best way is to compare the symptoms of a tension headache with the symptoms you personally are experiencing. Some of the hallmark symptoms of a tension headache include:
- Dull pain on both sides of the head simultaneously
- Pressure around the head (is often described as a band of pressure)
- Tense muscles in the neck, head, and shoulders
- Other causes, such as hunger, some foods, strong smells, etc.
The triggers are not universal and can be different for each person. They may also be difficult for a patient to articulate if the doctor asks them to be specific in describing their symptoms.
Some patients may only begin to notice a headache by realizing the muscles in their head, neck, and shoulders are tight. They may even absentmindedly begin massaging those areas instinctively to help relief some of the stress.
A tension headache does not usually evoke a throbbing sensation in the head, is not sensitive to loud noises or bright lights, and is not categorized by severe nausea or vomiting.
While anyone could be at risk of experiencing a tension headache, it is more prevalent in women than men.
Western Medicine’s Treatment of Tension Headaches
In western medicine, a patient relaying their symptoms of a headache is what will help a health professional provide a clinical diagnosis. It rarely relies on methods such as labs or x-ray imaging. One of the single most important parts of a clinical diagnosis is a patient’s own account of their symptoms.
When it comes to the treatment of tension headaches in western medicine, it is done in an effort to mitigate symptoms. The first line of treatment of tension headaches offered by many doctors could include over the counter medications such as ibuprofen, aspirin, Tylenol, or Motrin.
A doctor may also recommend one of these over-the-counter medications plus caffeine (the amount you might find in a strong cup of coffee) as studies have shown the combination to be somewhat successful in treating the symptoms of tension headaches.
For patients that deal with particularly persistent, regular, and severe headaches, some western medicine health professionals may even suggest daily antidepressant medications.
Collectively or apart, these efforts are made to help reduce the pain a headache is causing, but not to keep them from happening again.
Chinese Medicine’s Treatment of Tension Headaches
It is not uncommon for those who seek out Chinese medicine to be the same people who prefer not to be on regular, daily medications or antidepressants if they do not have to. Instead, they are looking to solutions such as acupuncture and herbal formulas designed to look deeper into what is happening inside the body that could be causing headaches.
A patient going to see a Chinese medicine doctor will still be asked questions about their headaches, but a patient accustomed to western medicine methods may not be clear on what those questions have to do with the headache. This is because western and Chinese medicine regard headaches differently.
For example, in Chinese medicine there is no distinction between types of headaches. In other words, the condition is a headache and not a special type such as tension or migraine. These professionals will be much more interested in hearing a patient describe the location of their headache because in Chinese medicine the location of a headache is associated with certain meridians running through various organs.
From this viewpoint, all the internal organs of the body are connected to a meridian that runs through specific regions of the head. Some specific examples are:
- The front part of your head (the forehead) is associated with the Yang Ming meridian, which correlates to the stomach and large intestine. This means that a headache in this part of the head could indicate there is an issue with a person’s stomach or digestion.
- Headaches in the central top portion of your head that can be considered part of the Jue Yin meridian, which correlates to the liver and the pericardium. A person with headaches in that region of the head might have underlying liver, heart, or pericardium issues.
In Chinese medicine the goal is to find what is out of balance inside a person’s body that is causing headaches and then treating the root of the problem. To do this, a doctor of Chinese medicine may look at organ systems, examine chi, and blood levels. This should yield clues about what is going on inside the body at the organ level.
A combination of herbal medicine and acupuncture can be instrumental in alleviating headaches. Herbal medicine may help restore balance to the body and assist with underlying problems causing a high frequency of headaches. Herbal formulas can help regulate, strengthen, and support internal organs and should be customized to what each individual patient needs.
Acupuncture can be used to help regulate the flow of energy or chi throughout the body’s meridians. While acupuncture points can vary vastly from patient to patient depending on their own circumstances, some of the more common points typically include:
- The base of the skull in the back which is located on the gallbladder channel
- The central top part of the head at the vertex
- The top of the foot between the first and second toe which is on the liver channel
- The arm between the first and second metacarpals on the back of the hand which is connected to the large intestine channel
A recent study published in the Journal of Neurology in October of 2022 examined acupuncture for patients with tension headaches. Out of 218 participants, results showed that acupuncture cut the number of days people suffered tension headaches by half during the course of 32 weeks. The authors concluded that acupuncture treatments were effective at reducing and preventing chronic tension headaches.
If you are suffering from frequent tension headaches, consider what a blend of western and Chinese medicine could do for you and your quality of life. Stop letting your headaches call the shots and take back your health.