Acupuncture for Tension Headaches

By Mary Vincent, L.Ac.

What are tension headaches?
Tension headaches are experienced by almost everyone at some point in their lives. They are by far the most common type of headache. The experience of the headache is commonly described as mild to moderate pain that feels as if a tight band is constricting around the head. The headaches can last anywhere from 30 minutes to a week. Tension headaches get their name from the common belief that they are caused by muscle constriction in the face, neck and scalp. However, some modern research has cast this theory into doubt. Newer theories suggest that the headaches are caused by either mixed nerve signals to the brain or overactive pain receptors

While the exact cause of tension headaches is not known, there are several well-known triggers:
• Stress
• Depression and anxiety
• Holding an uncomfortable position or poor posture
• Jaw clenching
• Sleep deprivation
• Irregular mealtime (hunger)
• Eyestrain
Minimizing these triggers can help to prevent the headaches or at least reduce their frequency.

The use of common over the counter analgesics like aspirin or ibuprofen is the most common treatment for tension headaches. While these pain killers often provide effective episodic relief, their long term use can cause dangerous health problems. For chronic tension headaches, tricyclic antidepressants like amitriptyline are often prescribed as a preventative measure. Less commonly, Botox injections have been used with some success to curb chronic tension headaches.

Acupuncture and Tension Headaches
Acupuncture theory differentiates headaches by the location of the pain in the head. For example, a headache localized at the top of the head would likely be considered a liver channel headache, whereas a headache primarily focused around the temples would more likely be considered a gallbladder channel headache. It is important to remember that pain in a particular channel does not necessarily mean that there is an issue with the underlying organ. By selecting points local to the pain and distally, on the extremities of the body, it is possible to clear stagnation out of the affected channels and alleviate the headache.

A German study involving 270 patients, found that acupuncture cut the occurrence of tension headache nearly in half. Most importantly, participants saw that the reduction in headaches lasted four weeks after treatment. For scientific purposes, all study participants received the exact same acupuncture points. While giving everyone the same treatment is necessary to show a causal effect scientifically, it is not the ideal way to practice acupuncture. By customizing headache treatments to the specific presentation and needs of the patient, it is possible to achieve much better results. Additionally, many of the tension headache triggers mentioned above can be effectively treated using acupuncture, helping to prevent them from occurring in the future.

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