The holiday season can really subject the body to multiple stressors. Take for example my friend Paula. Every year—right around mid-November until the end of December—her life is turned upside down.
First, she runs around tirelessly to create a perfect Thanksgiving meal for her family. She spends the entire week preparing for the big feast. As soon as the calendar hits December 1st, she’s busy transforming her house into a Christmas wonderland.
She stays up late nights wrapping presents and baking holiday treats. She even spends her lunch breaks racing around the city finding the perfect gifts for her family and friends!
Causes of Holiday Headaches
Paula wouldn’t trade these holiday memories for anything; however, she wouldn’t mind opting out of the pounding headaches she often gets as a result of holiday stress and lack of sleep. Other factors that may lead to headaches around the holidays include:
- Alcohol, caffeine, and processed foods (i.e. ham, pepperoni, and salami).
- Other foods can trigger headaches, including eggs, wheat, chocolate, tomatoes, oranges, peanuts, and dairy products.
- Food chemicals such as monosodium glutamate (MSG), tartrazine, aspartame, benzoic acid, and artificial sweeteners.
- Perfumes and seasonal scents such as pine and cinnamon.
- Holiday lights.
- Holiday traveling, especially by plane.
Types of Headaches
Paula is not alone with her frequent headaches. In fact, more than 45 million Americans suffer from chronic and recurring headaches, and 28 million of them have issues with migraine headaches. There are a variety of different types of headaches that people can experience:
- Tension headaches: Tension headaches, also called chronic non-progressive headaches, are most common among adolescents and adults. These headaches cause mild to moderate pain and they come and go over a long period of time.
- Migraine headaches: Unlike tension headaches, migraine headaches cause a throbbing and pounding pain. Migraines can last for hours or for days! They typically occur one to four times monthly. Other symptoms include sensitivity to odors, noise, or light; abdominal pain, stomach upset, vomiting, nausea, and loss of appetite.
- Mixed headache syndrome: Mixed headache syndrome is also called a transformed migraine. It’s a combination of tension and migraine headaches.
- Cluster headaches: A cluster headache is considered to be an intense type of headache that consists of constant, throbbing pain. Cluster headaches are considered so severe that sufferers cannot sit still. They also generally occur in grouped attacks, typically between one to three times daily.
- Sinus headaches: Sinus headaches are linked with a deep and constant pain in the bridge of the nose, forehead, and cheekbones. The pain intensifies with straining and sudden head movements.
What Is Acupuncture?
Paula is sick and tired of taking pain relievers. What’s worse is that over-the-counter drugs can sometimes lead to medication-induced headaches that are even more difficult to treat. Paula wanted to know a natural way to prevent and treat her holiday headaches. I suggested she try acupuncture.
Dating back thousands of years, acupuncture is one of the most common and oldest medical procedures used today. It is also the most popular traditional Chinese medicine utilized in the U.S. since it was first introduced here in 1972.
The effectiveness of acupuncture in the treatment of headaches, in particular, has been widely praised.
Acupuncture involves the piercing of skin with specialized needles at specific points on a person’s body. Acupuncture points are located on meridians or energy (qi) channels. The 14 principal meridians are named after body organs, including the heart, liver, small intestine, kidney, bladder, pericardium, gallbladder, triple burner, lung, spleen, stomach, large intestine, governor vessel, and conception vessel.
Acupuncture for Headaches
Acupuncture is considered a very effective procedure for headaches and migraines. Unlike drug treatments, acupuncture does not have any side effects, and the headache treatments are considerably less invasive. Major studies also support acupuncture for treating headaches and migraines. For instance, a 2009 review published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews supported acupuncture as a valuable non-pharmacological tool in patients with frequent chronic or episodic tension-type headaches.
The study included 11 trials and 2,317 participants. Another study published in the journal BMJ in 2004 found that acupuncture had clinically relevant benefits for patients with chronic headaches, particularly migraines. For the study, 401 chronic headache patients received up to 12 acupuncture sessions over a three-month period.
Common Acupuncture and Acupressure Points for Headaches
Acupuncture headache treatments will typically begin with general relaxation or calming points and release trigger points in the posterior cervical region, depending on the type of headache. The following are common acupuncture and acupressure points for headaches:
General Relaxation and Calming Points
- Large Intestine 4 (LI4): Large intestine 4 is effective for pain in the front of the head.
- Governor vessel 20 (GV20): It is located on top of the head and over the sagittal suture. It is a key acupressure point for general relaxation and calming.
Trigger Points in the Cervical Region
- Gallbladder 20 (GB20): Gallbladder 20 will ease any type of headache, especially migraines. GB20 is located at the base of the skull.
- Governor vessel 24.5 (GV24.5): For front headaches, GV24.5 is a useful acupressure point. It is used for tension, sinus, and migraine headaches.
- Bladder 2 (BL2) and stomach 2 (ST2): BL2 and ST2 are two points used for sinus headaches. BL2 is found at the frontal notch and ST2 is located adjacent to the nose.
- Temporal muscle tender points: Temporal muscle tender points will treat tension headaches when pressure is applied at the temporal region.
- Migraines and cluster headaches: Migraine and cluster headaches are a little more complicated to treat with acupuncture. It’s best to speak to an acupuncturist about your options.
What to Look for in an Acupuncturist
How should you select an acupuncturist? For one, they should be certified by the American Board of Medical Acupuncture. A non-physician acupuncturist will be licensed, and the letters L.Ac. will follow their name in most cases. It is best to choose an acupuncturist based on referrals. A database of certified acupuncturists can be found online at the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM).
Other Natural Treatments for Headaches
There are also other natural remedies for headaches, such as massages, heat pads, osteopathic and chiropractic treatment, 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP), coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), butterbur, magnesium, vitamin B2 (riboflavin), vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), feverfew, ginkgo biloba, calcium, melatonin, peppermint cream, and white willow bark.
Homeopathic remedies used for headache relief includes belladonna, bryonia, calcarea phosphorica, cimicifuga, gelsemium, glonoinum, ignatia, iris, lachesis, lycopodium, magnesia phosphorica, natrum muriaticum, natrum sulphuricum, nux vomica, pulsatilla, sanguinaria, and spigelia.
From a dietary approach it is a good idea to eliminate processed foods from the diet to avoid headache triggers to certain chemicals. It is also a good idea to increase your consumption of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids such as flaxseeds, fish oil, salmon, and other fatty fish. Determining food or environmental allergies can also help relieve the root cause of tension for migraine headaches.
Sources for Today’s Article:
Murray, M., N.D., et al., The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine: Third Edition (New York: First Atria Paperback, 2012), 639, 800.
Balch, J., et al., Prescription for Natural Cures: A Self-Care Guide for Treating Health Problems with Natural Remedies Including Diet, Nutrition, Supplements, and Other Holistic Methods (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2004), 300-305.
Rakel, D., et al., Integrative Medicine: Third Edition (Philadelphia: Elsevier Saunders, 2012), 950-955.
Melchart, D., et al., “Acupuncture for recurrent headaches: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials,” Cephalalgia: An International Journal of Headache, 1999; 19(9): 779-786; discussion 765.
Linde, K., et al., “Acupuncture for migraine prophylavis,” Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, January 21, 2009; (1): CD001218, doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD001218.pub2.
Vickers, A.J., et al., “Acupuncture for chronic headache in primary care: large, pragmatic, randomized trial,” BMJ, 2004; 328(7442).
“Headache Basics,” WebMD web site; http://www.webmd.com/migraines-headaches/guide/migraines-headaches-basics, last accessed November 24, 2015.
“Relieving Headaches with Traditional Chinese Medicine,” Daniel N. Hsu web site, http://www.nyacuhealth.com/migraines-and-headaches, last accessed November 24, 2015.