Open the Portals: Acupuncture Treatment for Cluster Headaches and Migraines.
Acupuncture is an effective way to treat chronic headaches, especially those that are intermittent, seasonal, environmental (allergic) or stress induced. The types of headaches that come and go, which seem to defy treatment by conventional methods, like Cluster Headaches and Migraines are especially treatable by Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine.
Headaches that are chronic, intermittent and recurrent are largely due to two main factors occurring in the head: blood stagnation or dampness (fluid stagnation). Chinese medicine has a popular school that specializes in the understanding and treatment of pain occurring in the head. This school is called “Wai Ke.” It is considered the principle school in Chinese Medicine to provide strategies for resolving chronic, stubborn pain conditions.
Within Chinese medicine, problems are seen to come from two main sources: the external world and the internal terrain of the body. External challenges to the body include sensitivity to climatic factors, allergens, environmental factors, as well as pestilent factors like bacteria, virus and fungal agents.
The head is one of the first areas confronted by external challenges. Chinese medicine uses the metaphors of “Wind” and “Cold” for external factors that afflict the body, making us sick. Wind provides an image of something mysterious and often unseen that hits us, causing disorientation to the body. Wind has the nature of moving fast and causing chaos. The Chinese medical classics say all disease is a form of “Wind.” When a bacterial agent afflicts the body, it agitates and disrupts the normal physiology of the body, causing an immune response in the form of a fever. The body begins sweating in an attempt to release the bacteria from the external terrain of the body. This is a form Wind that is complicated by heat.
The other image Chinese medicine uses for external factors that confront the body and make us sick is “Cold.” This is a similar concept as we have in the West. We say we “catch” a cold. The ancient Chinese say: we are “hit” by Wind, and “damaged” by Cold. Something external stuns us, disrupting our physiology – the normalcy of our life. It demands attention. The “Cold” aspect of the disruption is the fact that it stops us – freezes us – and challenges the normal physiological processes of our bodies. To the ancient Chinese, normal physiology of the body is based on warmth, which promotes movement and flow. When we are damaged by Cold, the physiological processes of our body slow down and stagnate. Any stagnation of physiology in the body: energy, blood or fluids will cause pain and discomfort. When we are damaged by Cold, we even have the sensual experience of cold: we shiver and have chills. We can feel the external cold fighting with the natural warmth of our immune systems. We feel alternating chills and fever occurring in our bodies.
When our bodies are strong we will be naturally able to “release” wind and “scatter” cold through the detoxification processes of sweating and urination. We will have full resolution of the Cold or Wind that is challenging us.
However, there are many instances where Wind or Cold become stuck in the head in a chronic or low-grade form. Chinese medicine observed how common it is for Wind and Cold conditions to remain unresolved in the head. They call this “Bi” obstruction syndrome. This manifests as chronic problems often characterized by pain, discomfort and hypersensitivity.
There are two physiological elements of the body responsible for chronic, lingering, intermittent pain conditions: blood and fluids. The immune system is composed of warmth energy (Yang Qi), blood and fluids. They are the humors that contend with a foreign invader like bacteria or virus. They are mobilized to the head to sweat or urinate out the foreign agents. However, if the blood or fluids fail to fully evacuate the Wind or Cold, they can actually trap them inside the body. The head is filled with bony cavities and blood capillaries where Wind and Cold can become stored and trapped.
When the body fails to fully eradicate the factors of Wind or Cold, it will compensate for its failure by hiding the problem as best it can. The blood and fluids will mask the condition, making them low grade and intermittent. There will be periods of time where the body is without symptoms and the condition seems to be gone. Yet, when the body is triggered, symptoms will reappear. This is the major reason for allergies. The problem is not so much that there is something harmful in the air. The problem comes from the fact that there is unresolved Wind or Cold trapped in the head that is reacting to whatever is circulating in the air outside the body.
The same is true for hypersensitivity to weather or stress. Environmental pressure will aggravate Wind or Cold that is stagnated in the head. This is also true for stress, which will generate heat within the body that vents into the head. Anything trapped in the head will block the sensory orifices, preventing internal heat (stress factors) from fully venting up and out of the body. They will also inhibit the body’s homeostatic mechanism for adjusting to weather and barometric pressure. We become hypersensitive, finding it difficult to adjust to changes occurring around or within us.
Wai Ke and Chinese medicine has much to contribute to the treatment of chronic, intermittent, recurrent issues like headaches. What Western medicine often fails to realize is that hypersensitivity and recurrent pain occurs because of blockage of the body’s physiology – its qi (physiological energy), blood and fluids. The blockage is the result of something unresolved that is lingering in the head.
The metaphors of Wind and Cold are especially poignant, as they refer to anything from the external world that challenges and disrupts the physiology of the body.
Acupuncture is a powerful way to direct the physiology of the body and create a detox. It is one of the best methods to release blockage in the body, promoting the natural healing capacity of the body to resume its function.
To treat headaches, they must assessed. They are treated based on which “Zone” of the head is affected. They are also assessed based on the time of day the headaches become worse. Different Acupuncture Channels and points treat different Zones of the head. The affected Zones also give clues as to which type of “Wind” factor is stuck in the body: Cold, Damp or Heat.
An occipital headache occurring in the back of the head is called a “Tai Yang” headache, often associated with Wind-Cold obstruction in the head. Headaches that occur in the temples, on the sides of the head are called “Shao Yang” headaches, associated with Wind-Dampness. Frontal headaches that occur in the sinus area are called “Yang Ming,” associated with Wind-Heat.
Headaches as well as most chronic pain conditions are complicated by blockage in the sense orifices. When the nose/sinus, eyes and ears are blocked, the body cannot fully release Wind and Cold, which leads to inflammation and fluid stagnation (phlegm). Inflammation is the leading cause of hypersensitivity. Dampness and phlegm cause conditions to become chronic and lowgrade.
Chinese medicine also recognizes the importance of blood circulation within the immune process. When the body’s fluids (sweat and urination) are not able to fully release an invading external factor (virus, bacteria, fungus or environmental toxins), the blood will become mobilized to “expel the wind.”
When the body becomes overwhelmed by an external challenge, either because the challenge is very strong or because the body is insufficient in its energy or resource reserves, this will stagnate the fluids and blood. The physiological humors meant to create detox (blood and fluids) actually become the substances that create the blockage that leads to chronicity and lack of resolution. Therefore one of the first actions that needs to be taken when resolving chronic pain conditions is to regulate the blood and fluids in the head.
The other major action that needs to be taken when trying to clear blockages in the head causing chronic pain is to make sure the body’s routes of elimination are open. Constipation is a major barrier to resolving chronic conditions like migraines and headaches.
According to Wai Ke, to resolve any painful obstruction syndrome in the body, the intestines and sinus regions must be open. These are the major portals for the body to eliminate. If they are impassable, the body will lack proper detoxification capacity.
The Acupuncture channels were discovered by the ancient Chinese as pathways that conduct the body’s physiological energy. We can tap into the Acupuncture channels by stimulating acupuncture points. The points act like switches that regulate the physiological flow along the acupuncture channels.
I recently treated a woman suffering from intensely painful chronic Cluster Headaches. They would get so painful she would start shaking uncontrollably, feeling as if sharp knives were poking into her eye. We can call her Barbara. The headaches would frequently come during change of seasons, aggravated by stress and fatigue. They were located on one side of the head behind the eye. They became worse towards the end of the day into the night. Sometimes they would come and go all night long, keeping her from sleeping.
The first thing I noticed when I met Barbara was how red and flushed her face was. There was a lot of heat venting up into her head. I also notice a strong smoky smell emanating from her body and breath, as if something was burning inside her body. When I felt her pulses (the main method of diagnosis in Chinese medicine), I could tell the blood circulation in her body was distressed. There was inflammation that was consuming her blood. There was also obvious blockage. Her pulses felt like a rapidly moving tight bowstring, as if she was ready to explode. She described herself as someone who didn’t express emotions easily. She said she tended to hold everything in.
My assessment was that she had a Wind-Damp obstruction in the “Shao Yang” (temple) area of her head. I could tell the portals of elimination were obstructed in her body by the tightness of her pulses. Her intestines and sinus were blocked, unable to create a full detox that would eliminate her condition. The stagnation in her head, chest and bowels were creating heat and a tremendous amount of pressure inside her body that was venting into her head.
According to Chinese medical physiology, when the aspect of the immune system that is governed by the Lungs is not functioning optimally, the Liver will get involved. The way Chinese medicine sees the body is that the energy of the Lungs and Liver control the normal, cyclical rhythms of the body. They are also the organs that regulate immune function. It is the Lungs that generates sweat to get rid of Wind and Cold. It also regulates peristaltic movement in the intestines to create bowel movements and urination. The Liver is the organ that moves all obstructions in the body to restore free smooth flow.
The movement of the Lungs is relatively gentle and subtle when it’s working well. It can often take care of releasing problems from the body without us even realizing. It is the Lungs that govern the micro-sweat that occurs when we become overheated or when we come in contact with some foreign agent. The Lungs just release it. The Lungs also do this with mental or emotional stress. When the Lungs are working well, we are able to let go of our stress, thoughts and emotions as they occur moment by moment.
However, when the Lungs become weak, the process of letting go becomes less gentle. Things start to get stuck. We may experience elimination processes that are more violent. We may have frequent bouts of purging in terms of waste coming out of the sensory orifices or the bowels. We may also have moments where we emotionally explode or becoming obsessive-compulsive in our behavior. This is when the Liver has gotten involved.
Extreme headaches like Barbara was experiencing can also be due to the Liver’s violent mode to trying to release stagnation. The violence and cruelty of these headaches was due to the tremendous amount of heat being generated by the Liver in its attempt to purge the stagnation from Barbara’s head. Yet all this pressure was butting up against her closed portals of elimination. Her sinus and intestinal regions were blocked, preventing the pressure generated by the Liver from breaking through to create release.
The first thing I focused on with Barbara was to help her open her sinus, intestines and chest. The chest needs to be open for the intestines to release, as it’s the Lung energy that moves the Colon. I chose a series of acupuncture points called “Luo points,” which have a strong effect on regulating blood circulation that has become stuck in the body. Luo points overall have a strong impact on Liver function and its ability to course stagnation in the body.
The points Spleen-4 and Kidney-4 on the feet, when needled in a way that regulates the blood helps open the intestines to promote bowel movements. The points Stomach-40 on the leg and Large Intestine-6 on the forearm help open the sinus region. I combined these points with another point on the leg: Gallbladder-37 which affects the area of the head that was giving Barbara pain – it goes into the eyes and the temples. It is also a point that regulates frustration and a sense of hopelessness. The final point used in this series was Heart-5 which opens the chest and affects the mind. It is especially useful for a person who has a tendency to keep emotional stress pent up inside. Heart-5 helps give expression to unresolved emotional material. It is said to “release the tongue” and open the eyes.
These points were an attempt to free up blood flow to go the surface of the body. At the same time, we were trying to open the portals of elimination: the sinus, intestines and eyes so Barbara could have openings where her body could discharge the wind and dampness that was trapped in her head. Based on her description of herself, I guessed unexpressed emotion might vent itself out too.
Once Barbara’s pulses indicated that her system was more open and her Lungs were stronger, I added points that helped “expel” wind and dry up dampness. Gallbladder-44 and Stomach-44 on the toes have a strong releasing effect on the sinus and ears, eyes and sides of the head. When the upper portals are adequately open and there is enough fluid and blood available to carry out the Wind, these toe points can release things quickly.
Barbara had a major release during her treatment. Her headache came, accompanied by crying, shaking and sweating. She said she continued detoxing for the next day. After that, the headaches began to reduce in intensity and frequency.
Barbara’s condition was chronic and quite severe. Even though we were able to create a big release that eased her condition, more work was required. We needed to spend time retraining her physiology. There was a mental and emotional tendency within Barbara to hold onto things. This was causing her Lung energy to be depressed. Her emotional disposition was weakening her immune capacity, causing her to have violent releases through the Liver rather than gentle, subtle continuous release via the Lungs.
In addition to opening the intestines, Spleen-4 also has an effect on breaking up habits and obsessive thinking. Kidney-4 strengthens Willpower. Stomach-40 calms the tendency to get emotionally agitated over things occurring in a person’s social world. Large Intestine-6 strengthens the ability for the mind to process and eliminate sensory stimuli.
The best type of treatment is one that addresses the current symptoms causing distress, along with past etiologies and tendencies that have caused the problem. Perhaps the highest form of treatment is that which addresses the root of the problem, which is often due to our own habitual ways of thinking, moving, behaving or processing stimuli from the world.
Strengthening the Lungs for example involves allocating more energy to protect the body from external challenges. It also means training the body and mind to be able to let go of thoughts, emotions and experiences quickly and fuller – to not let things linger in the body and mind. But it also involves strengthening the body’s ability to process sensory stimuli in general so the eyes, ears and nose don’t get clogged with unprocessed material. This is part of the Lung’s subtle, imperceptible function of letting go.
Working on Barbara’s Lung function aimed to help her remain healthy and strong. It was like prophylactic medicine. Working with blood often involves working with a person’s mental and emotional tendencies. We can just work to reduce symptoms. But real profound healing comes when we can recognize the tendencies that make us vulnerable to illness and learn how to change those tendencies so we remain strong.