Chinese Medicine and Migraines
Approximately 28 million Americans suffer from chronic migraine headaches. No exact cause of migraine headaches has been discovered but they are known to be related to blood vessel constriction, and inherited abnormalities.1 Researchers have recently identified a gene called TRESK, which can trigger pain centers in the brain when not functioning properly.2 Another hereditary theory holds that migraine sufferers inherit a sensitivity in their nervous systems that makes them susceptible to migraines when exposed to sudden changes both internally (think stress) and externally (weather).3 This sensitivity seems to mostly impact serotonin metabolism. Serotonin levels in the blood fall during a migraine but return to normal between attacks.4
Migraines are more prevalent in women than men by a two to one ratio (17.5% female vs 8.6% male). This ratio increases during menstruating/childbearing years, leading many to relate migraines with hormonal changes.5
Migraines can range in symptoms, frequency, duration and intensity. Many patients will present with an ‘aura’. An aura mainly presents as visual disturbances like flashing of light, floaters, or blind spots. Some patients will experience tingling and numbness in their body. Migraines can be debilitating and last several hours or days. Pain can be moderate to intense and may be accompanied by nausea, light and/or sound sensitivity.
Recent studies suggest that women who have migraines with aura are more at risk for ischemic stroke. The risk levels increase with smoking or use of the birth control pill.
According to the study:
“Migraine is associated with a twofold increased risk of ischemic stroke, which is only apparent among people who have migraine with aura. Our results also suggest a higher risk among women and risk was further magnified for people with migraine who were aged less than 45, smokers, and women who used oral contraceptives6”.
Patients with migraines are often encouraged to avoid potential triggers when they can. Some of the controllable triggers include caffeine, red wine, skipping meals (affects blood sugar levels) and stress. Other factors such as weather changes are not as easy to avoid.
The most common treatment is the use of medications designed to stop a migraine once it starts or to prevent frequent recurrences of migraines. Chinese Medicine is an excellent adjunct to standard allopathic care. We’ve consistently seen patients reduce, or even eliminate their migraine medications over time.
How can Chinese Medicine help?
The Chinese medical approach works to reduce the frequency, intensity and duration of headaches by treating the underlying cause of the headache. While also providing systematic relief, we attempt to reduce and/or eliminate the cause of the headaches.
Many of the Chinese Herbs used in the treatment of migraines are known to have analgesic (pain killers), vasodilating (dilation of blood vessels), and stress reducing qualities. All three are key aspects in the treatment of migraines.
Earlier we mentioned the role of serotonin in migraine headaches. Acupuncture is well known for its ability to impact serotonin levels and stimulate the release of dopamine (pain killing chemical) and improve the stress response. Acupuncture helps to stabilize the function of the nervous system, which may further explain its role in the treatment of migraines.7 There have been many studies which have demonstrated acupuncture’s efficacy in treating headaches; one of our favorites was published in 2008 by Duke University researchers reviewed 31 different studies and found that acupunture was “superior to medication therapy in improving headache intensity, frequency, and response rate.”
If there is a menstrual related component to your migraines, Chinese Medicine is also well known for regulating hormonal fluctuations during the menstrual cycle. Regular treatment can show improvements in cramping, bloating, mood swings as well as quality and quantity of blood flow. These changes to the period often go hand in hand with the improvement that people experience with their headaches.
By combining traditional allopathic medicine with Chinese medicine, you get the most comprehensive approach to your migraine care. As improvements are made with Chinese medicine, it may be possible to reduce or eliminate your medications.
2. Anttila V et al. Genome-wide association study of migraine implicates a common susceptibility variant on 8q22.1. Nature Genetics 2010; e-pub ahead print at doi:10.1038/ng.652.
3. Aron, Elaine. “Overwhelmed by the World?” Utne Reader. Nov-Dec. 2000 pg 90
4. Larkin, Marilynn, “ The Role in Serotonin in Migraine”, JAMA Migraine Information Center,
5. Migraine prevalence by age and sex in the United States: A life span study T W Victor, X Hu, JC Campbell, DC Buse, R Lipton Cephalalgia first published on March 12, 2010
6. BMJ 2009; 339:b3914 Migraine and cardiovascular disease: systematic review and meta-analysis Markus Schürks, instructor19, Pamela M Rist, doctoral student12, Marcelo E Bigal, director34, Julie E Buring, professor12, Richard B Lipton, professor356, Tobias Kurth, senior researcher1278
7. Kendall, Donald. Dao of Chinese Medicine-Understanding an Ancient Healing Art. Oxford University Press New York, 2002. Pg 51