Migraine headaches can be a debilitating health condition, often knocking sufferers out for two or more days at a time, over a period of many years.

Typically migraine headaches are one-sided, with throbbing or pulsating pain, intensified with physical activity; and often accompanied by nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light or sound. Many variations exist and it’s important to remember that even for the same person, no two migraines are the same.

From the perspective of Chinese medicine, migraine is classified and treated according to the constitution and condition of the patient, the location and nature of the pain or symptoms, and external factors that may trigger an attack. These considerations allow a doctor of Chinese medicine to diagnose which channel and corresponding organ system is out of balance and address the underlying cause.

Chinese medicine recognises more than nine different imbalances which can cause migraine symptoms, whether it be a liver or gallbladder channel disharmony, a deficiency of Qi or blood, an upsurge of Yang to the channels in the head, or a combination. Because of this, acupuncture and herbal medicine treatment provides specific and targeted relief of active symptoms, and reconfigures the body to deal with the imbalance at its core, reducing the frequency and severity of migraines long term.

Location of pain and corresponding acupuncture channels

A ‘frontal’ or forehead migraine or headache is usually attributed to the stomach channel; pain in the crown and back of the head corresponds to the bladder channel, while the typical migraine presentation affecting the temples and side of the head is connected to the liver and gallbladder channels.

Migraine triggers

According to traditional Chinese medicine theory, the liver and gallbladder systems are highly sensitive to coffee, alcohol, stress, hormonal changes and strong emotions such as anger and frustration – which explains why these are common triggers for a typical migraine pattern. There may also be a constitutional underlying predisposition – many patients mention a pattern in their family history. Other factors such as certain foods and drinks, ongoing use of some medications, overwork or fatigue, insomnia and other environmental triggers including weather changes and exposure to chemicals and toxins are all recognised as potential migraine triggers.

An integral part of treatment for migraine is developing awareness of what might be triggering attacks. Keeping a diary or using an app to track symptoms, sleep, energy levels, diet, exercise, treatment/medication and suspected triggers can be very useful.

Acupuncture and herbal medicine treatment

Most treatments for migraine in the Chinese medicine clinic involve acupuncture and herbal medicine to ease migraine symptoms and correct the underlying imbalance. Each case is different, but in my clinical experience, an initial course of six to eight weekly sessions with thorough re-assessment at each visit is a reasonable starting point. Modern studies of the mechanism of acupuncture to address migraine have found needling stimulates morphine-like molecules which block pain receptors. Traditional understanding is that as well as pain relief, acupuncture and herbal medicine work deeper to regulate the hormonal and nervous systems, restore free flow of Qi and allow the body to self-regulate and heal.

Basic lifestyle recommendations

• Drink plenty of filtered water – for most adults this means about 8 glasses per day.

• Eat plenty of whole foods including organic vegetables and fruit.

• Avoid processed and packaged foods, especially sugars and refined carbohydrates, which are particularly inflammatory.

• Eliminate caffeine, alcohol and cigarettes (and any suspected personal triggers such as chocolate and peanuts) for two months and use your migraine diary to monitor changes in symptoms.

• Keep up a routine of regular, gentle exercise.

• Try yoga, meditation or tai chi to help manage stress levels.

Home remedies

• Rub peppermint oil into the temples to ease migraine pain and associated nausea.

• Gently massage the acupuncture point between thumb and first finger to ease headache or migraine symptoms – this point is called He Gu and is the master point for problems of the head and neck.

• Make use of the anti-inflammatory properties of fresh ginger – slice into boiling water and steep for a few minutes to make a soothing tea.

• Soak feet in a tub of warm water in the evenings to anchor and redirect Yang – an upsurge of which is understood in Chinese medicine to contribute to migraine.