Combining western and eastern approach to migraine treatment
Dealing with chronic migraines can feel like a herculean feat. The cause of migraines is complex, and with that complexity often comes lack of clarity with treatment. While modern medicines can be incredibly effective, they are rarely perfect and the moments when you still have pain even with a robust treatment plan are frustrating. Supplementing migraine drugs with other therapies can work wonders, even if it’s as simple as a cold compress over your eyes to block out the light. In addition to those gut-instinct behaviors, Traditional Chinese Medicine offers an alternative perspective to headache relief that can be used alongside your other treatments.
Western vs Eastern Approach to Migraines
In Western medicine, migraines are categorized as primary headaches, which means they are caused by pain-sensitive structures in your head. This is different from a secondary headache, which might be caused by an underlying disease in another part of the body. Translated to treatment options, this Western philosophy focuses on the nerves and blood vessels around your brain and skull. While this is certainly important, Traditional Chinese Medicine takes a more holistic approach that could offer another layer of relief.
When Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioners think about migraines, they are considering the entire body, where any disharmony patterns may actually be the root cause of the headache. To begin understanding these causes, you first have to look at how the head is understood in TCM. In TCM, all the body’s qi, it’s primordial energy, converges toward the head. This means that the brain is energetically connected to all the organs, and is nourished by them. What it also means is that an imbalance in something seemingly unrelated, like the liver, may be what’s causing your migraine.
External factors are also considered as migraine causes in TCM. Depending on the season and what your environment looks like, different external factors could be affecting you, known in TCM as “wind”, “cold”, “heat” and “dampness”. The most commonly cited cause for headaches is “wind”. A full understanding of this “wind” involves a complex melding of literal and symbolic interpretations, and is definitely worth looking into if you want to dive deeper into TCM. For now, suffice it to say that “wind” refers to any outside forces that may be causing your migraines, such as a sudden change in climate.
With these internal and external causes in mind, TCM seeks to strengthen your organs, improve your qi and blood flow, and dispel any external pathogenic factors. This likely will not involve one perfect treatment, but rather some combination of practices that work for your body. Crucially, you should not stop taking any doctor-recommended medications without consulting a medical professional. TCM can be a great way to augment what you’re already doing.
The most common TCM treatment for migraines is acupuncture. While acupuncture has been practiced in China for centuries, it has much more recently been adopted on a large scale in the Western world. As one of the more well known TCM practices in the West, it has been the subject of many scientific studies. One study involving nearly 5000 participants in 22 clinical trials showed evidence that acupuncture can reduce the frequency of migraines.
Acupuncture for migraines involves thin needles being placed at various pressure points in order to balance the flow of qi through the body. The needles may be placed around your head, but may also be placed in your arms, legs or back. Keep in mind that the TCM approach to migraines involves energy flow through the entire body. A session typically lasts about an hour, and most people undergo multiple sessions spaced out over a period of time. The best thing to do if you are interested in acupuncture is to consult a specialist who can learn more about your body and symptoms and develop a treatment plan to suit your needs.
Another application of the same principles of balancing qi is acupressure. Acupressure is less invasive than acupuncture, so you can even practice it on your own at home. The idea with acupressure is to apply physical pressure to certain points on your body--similar points, in fact, to those you would place needles in acupuncture. The pressure point you should be focusing on if you have headaches or migraines is called Hegu. You might also see this point referred to as LI-4, which stands for large intestine 4. This just indicates that it is the 4th pressure point along the large intestine meridian, one path of energy through the body. The point is located between the base of your thumb and index finger.
To perform acupressure on yourself, start by using your right thumb and index finger to put pressure on the Hegu point of your left hand, effectively pinching the spot between your two fingers. Keep up the pressure for five minutes, circling the fingers applying pressure. You should be pressing firmly, but it should not hurt at any point. After you have finished on your left hand, do the same thing to your right hand. You can do acupressure when you feel symptoms coming on, or several times a day as a general practice to help with prevention.
3. Gua Sha
While acupuncture and acupressure both help balance your body’s qi, there are also techniques to help increase the flow of qi and blood through the body. One such technique that is worth looking into as a migraine sufferer is Gua Sha. Gua Sha is a form of massage using a scraping tool. Essentially, the Gua Sha practitioner scrapes the tool in a repetitive motion, often focusing on one area of muscle at a time. It is typically used on the back, neck, arms and legs, although a gentler version can also be used on the face. Just like with any massage, the practitioner can apply gentle or firm pressure, and will ask you what you are comfortable with. It should not be painful. One thing to note if you are new to Gua Sha is that you may walk away with red marks or mild bruising in the area. This is nothing to be alarmed about, and should fade in a couple of days.
If you are looking to add some Gua Sha practice into your routine, you can also get your own Gua Sha tool and do self massage on your face and neck. To practice Gua Sha yourself, start by cleaning your skin and applying a facial oil to the area you want to massage. The oil allows the Gua Sha tool to glide along your skin without friction. Then, take the blunt edge of your tool and apply slight pressure as you scrape it along your skin. The tool should always be at an angle against your skin, never perfectly perpendicular. If you keep the tool perpendicular, the pressure can end up being way too harsh, even if you don’t feel it right away. As a general rule, this Gua Sha should never be painful. Make sure not to use Gua Sha massage on any broken skin or acne, and don’t forget to clean your tool after every use. For even more migraine relief, put your Gua Sha tool in ice water before using it so that it cools as you scrape.
4. Herbal supplements
As important as how you treat the outside of your body for migraines is what you put in it. For centuries, TCM practitioners have supplemented the physical practices like acupuncture with herbal therapy. The most basic herbal therapy comes in the form of herbs that are responsible for maintaining and restoring body balance. These herbs do not target any particular ailment, but are useful for overall health. A common example is American ginseng, which is often used to boost overall energy.
For migraines specifically, reishi mushrooms and angelica root are good options. The easiest way to add herbal therapy into your arsenal of migraine treatments is through a supplement. Just be sure before using an herbal supplement that you know what the ingredients are and where they come from.
Combining this practice of herbal therapy with the other techniques for balancing qi is a wonderful way to start finding the elements of TCM that work for you. Whether you seek out a professional treatment like acupuncture or start simple with at-home Gua Sha, there are many more tools in your arsenal to fight migraines in combination with prescribed medication.
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