"Not Now, I Have a Headache!"

By Barbra Esher, AOBTA CI. Dipl. ABT & Ac. (NCCAOM), LAc
May 29, 2009

"Not Now, I Have a Headache!"

By Barbra Esher, AOBTA CI. Dipl. ABT & Ac. (NCCAOM), LAc
May 29, 2009

Sometimes Useful, but Not Inevitable

One of my instructors said that the most difficult part of treating a headache in China is figuring out whether the client has one or not. In China, it apparently is an accepted excuse for calling in sick to work, so many people show up at the clinic for a doctor's excuse.

In the U.S., it seems as if headaches are considered an inevitability of a stressful and busy life. An employer would not likely consider letting someone off work for a bodywork treatment! "Take some aspirin and get back to work!" would be a more likely response to an employee moaning about a headache.

When I interview clients and find they get headaches, they seem surprised when I ask detailed questions. "Can you help with THAT?" they ask, hardly daring to hope for relief. Luckily, it's fairly simple. By asking about the frequency, location, timing and quality of the pain, you can determine what is causing the imbalance and how to treat it. Accurate assessment of the problem is essential to get to the root cause.


You probably already know this, but it bears repeating. If a client comes to you in a state of disease you don't understand, refer, refer, refer! If a headache comes on suddenly, severely or is accompanied by nausea, tell the patient to use the acupressure point at the tip of the index finger to dial 911. I had a 41-year-old female client with those symptoms. She died in the parking lot in front of a hospital from a subarachnoid hemorrhage. Other causes of headaches that need medical intervention include meningitis, cerebral tumor, hypertension and ear infections. Be safe and get a medical diagnosis!

Looking at Patterns

In Chinese medicine, to reach an accurate assessment of a client's condition we need to look at the overall pattern based on the five elements and the zang-fu (the energetic actions of the organs); the quality of the pain; what makes it better and worse; and the location of the pain. I will give an example of each and delve more deeply into assessment by location, based on the meridians.

Five-element and zang-fu pattern discrimination look deeply at where the client is physically, emotionally and spiritually. These aspects have never been thought of as separate in Asia; they never suffered the Cartesian mind/body split as we did in the West.

When people have constipation, they are having trouble letting go of physical waste. This may manifest on an emotional level as well, in not being able to let go of waste in their lives. Maybe they are holding on to a lost love or friends that are obviously toxic to them. In Chinese medicine, these are all manifestations of a metal imbalance - encompassing the lung and large intestine meridians. So the treatment is the same, whether they are physically or mentally having trouble letting go of wastes. It's the same imbalance, which could result in headaches. There are approximately 17 different five-element/zang-fu types of headaches, so I obviously can't go into each one in this article.

The quality of the pain is going to give other information. For example, a dull ache indicates a deficiency condition. Slow, deep-but-gentle pressure with the intention to tonify is used to treat this condition. Sharp pain means there is an excess condition; quicker movements are used to disperse, going away from the head.

What makes the headache better or worse also gives useful information. For example, the person who says that their headache gets worse after they have sex has a kidney qi deficiency. If having sex relieves their headache, then it is most likely due to liver fire or liver qi stagnation.

Treating by Location

Determining the location of the headache is essential in developing a treatment plan in conjunction with zang-fu pattern discrimination. The four areas of the head (and corresponding headaches) are listed below:

1. Back of the Head/Occipital Headache - Taiyang

Taiyang headaches are treated by working on the two taiyang meridians: the bladder and small intestine. It is important to work on local points, like GB 20, as well as distal points on the bladder and small intestine, like BL 60 and SI 3. All of these have a powerful affect on the neck and occiput region. A chronic headache in this region could be due to a kidney qi deficiency manifesting in the bladder meridian.

2. Side of the Head - Temporal Headache- Shaoyang

Temporal shaoyang headaches need gall bladder and triple heater meridian treatment. GB 8 and taiyang are useful local points. The distal points are on the shaoyang meridians - TH 5 and GB 41. I often teach GB 41 to clients with migraines. Someone once told me, "That's so funny! Whenever I have a headache, I'm intuitively drawn to pressing that area of my foot, and it helps!"

The location of this headache follows the course of the gall bladder meridian, which has a very close relationship with the liver. I can guarantee that the liver is somewhere behind the cause of that headache, whether it is liver-fire, liver-yang or liver-wind rising. Keep this in mind when you are doing a more detailed assessment.

3. Frontal Headache - Yangming

Yangming frontal headaches require large intestine and stomach meridian balancing. A common mistake is to treat a headache in the forehead region with bladder meridian points, when in actuality, stomach and large intestine are much more effective. The stomach meridian internal pathway begins at LI 20, and as it goes up alongside the nose, reaches the forehead from BL 1.

Maybe the most famous acupressure point for headaches is LI 4, located on the webbing between the thumb and index finger. It is quite effective for headaches as a distal point, but only for yangming headaches! People that have tried this point with other types of headaches are most likely convinced this acupressure stuff is a bunch of hooey. Along with LI 4, use ST 44 as another distal point. Effective local points for this type of headache are St 8, yintang and ST 3. A yangming headache often is caused by dampness (tx SP 9) or phlegm (tx ST 40). Symptoms pointing to these pathogenic factors are a heavy, muddled feeling in the head, a sticky tongue coating and a rolling pulse. Brace yourself for a long haul, though, since these are the most difficult pathogenic factors to resolve!

4. Top of the Head/Parietal Headache - Jueyin

Finally, jueyin headaches are at the top of the head. This is related to the liver meridian, which has an internal pathway up to that area. An effective local point is DU 20; an excellent distal point is LV 3. A jueyin headache could be due to deficient qi and blood as well. Best to look at all signs and symptoms.

Learn More

The above examples are more useful for those who have gone through a complete program of Asian bodywork therapy. ABT is an ancient healing art that allows you access to a person's core being. You aren't going to get it by reading an article. Get out there and learn it! It's a whole new way of being in and relating to the world.

For a list of schools that offers programs in ABT, go to www.aobta.org/schools.htm. For information on the national ABT exam, go to www.nccaom.org.