How traditional Chinese medicine can help Migraine

“Migraine is an inherited tendency to have headaches with sensory disturbance. It’s an instability in the way the brain deals with incoming sensory information, and that instability can become influenced by physiological changes like sleep, exercise and hunger.” [1]

How does Traditional Chinese Medicine see migraine?

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) migraines can be due to either external pathogenic invasion (of Wind, Cold, Damp or Heat) or internal imbalances. All six Yang Channels as well as the Yin Channel of the Liver meet at the top of the head. Qi circulates within the channels as well as moves the Blood. If there is any disturbance to the circulation due to external pathogenic invasion or an imbalance of the respective organ of a channel then Qi & Blood can stagnate causing pain i.e. headache or migraine. The location of pain on the head, intensity and accommodating symptoms will give a TCM/Acupuncture Practitioner an indication of which channels or organs are involved.

The location of the headache/migraine:

  • top of the head: usually Liver
  • sides of the head, one side or temple area: Gallbladder
  • behind the eyes: Liver
  • forehead: usually related to Stomach or a retainment of damp or phlegm
  • back of the head: Kidneys manifesting on Bladder Channel
  • whole head: Kidneys

In general a persistent migraine is usually caused by internal imbalances concerning the Liver, Spleen, and Kidney. These organs can show signs of deficiency of either Yin, Yang, Qi or Blood in addition to signs of Liver Yang Rising which is seen as an excess. Deficiency patterns generally present with observable excesses, such as Phlegm and Blood Stasis (Blood stagnating due to Qi not moving it resulting in pain).

The types of pain:

  • dull: due to deficiency
  • feeling of heaviness or muzzy: Damp or Phlegm
  • distending, ‘throbbing’, ‘bursting’ or ‘pulsating’ pain: Liver (Liv-Yang Rising or Liv-Fire)
  • stiffness of top of shoulders & neck: Liver-Yang Rising
  • pulling: Liver-Wind
  • stabbing, boring or ‘splitting headache’: Blood Stasis
  • Better: sitting up, lie in bed propped up: Liver

Other factors include weather, emotions, sexual activity, diet, posture, menstruation, and hypertension. Damp phlegm accumulation due to eating too many fatty, greasy, or sweet foods or dairy products can initiate migraines. Drinking alcohol or eating pungent food can cause flare-ups of stomach or liver fire resulting in migraine. A headache that worsens with pressure is usually due to an excess condition. If a migraine is accompanied by nausea or vomiting TCM sees it as Liver Qi invading the Stomach and when Liver Qi invades the Spleen than accompanying symptoms of diarrhoea can be expected.

Common symptoms: visual disturbances, flashing lights, auras or blurred vision are usually due to a Liver Pattern; either Liver-Yang Rising, Liver Fire or Liver-Blood deficiency

Other symptoms can include: dizziness, tinnitus, deafness, dry throat, insomnia, irritability, red tongue, wiry pulse

Usually due to either deficiency patterns:

  1. Liv-Blood deficiency: common
  2. Liv-Yin deficiency: same as blood but with dry eyes
  3. Liv-&Kid-Yin deficiency
  4. Liv-/Kid-Yin and Kid-Yang def

or Excess Patterns:

  1. Liver-Yang Rising
  2. Liver Fire
  3. Blood Stasis

Acupuncture points frequently used:

General points: Liv3, Liv8, Sp6, SJ5, GB20, Taiyang

Other points: P6, Lu7, GB43

Local points GB4, GB5, GB6, GB8, GB9, GB13, GB14, GB21, BL2, Yuyao, GB1

How does Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) help with migraines?

The Chinese medical approach works by reducing the frequency, intensity and duration of migraines.   While also providing systematic relief, the TCM practitioner’s goal is to reduce and/or eliminate the underlying cause of the migraine.

Many of the Chinese Herbs used in the treatment of migraines are known to have analgesic (pain killers), are vasodilating (dilation of blood vessels), and have stress reducing qualities.  All three are key aspects in the treatment of migraines.

Interestingly Serotonin levels in the blood fall during a migraine but return to normal between these attacks. [4] Acupuncture is well known for its ability to impact serotonin levels and stimulate the release of dopamine (pain killing chemical) which will  improve the stress response.  In addition, Acupuncture helps to stabilize the function of the nervous system. This can be particularly important because an inherited sensitivity in the nervous system can make migraine sufferers more susceptible to sudden changes to internal factors (like stress) and/or external factors (e.g. weather).

In addition, if there is a menstrual related component to the migraine, Acupuncture and Chinese Herbs are well known for regulating hormonal fluctuations during the menstrual cycle. Regular treatments can show improvements in cramping, bloating, mood swings as well as the quality & quantity of the blood flow. These changes to the periode often go hand in hand with the improvement to the experienced migraine or headache.

some of the Chinese Herbs Formulas that are frequently used:

  • Liv Yang Rising & Liv Wind: Tian Ma Gou Teng Yin, Zhen Gan Xi Feng Tang (more Yin nourishing)
  • Liv Rire: Long Dan Xie Gan Tang
  • Liv Qi stagnation: Xiao Yao San
  • Dampness: Qiang Huo Sheng Shi Tang
  • Turbid Phlegm: Ban Xia Bai Zhu Tian Ma Tang
[1] Goadsby, P., ‘more than “just a headache”’, migraine trust, (accessed 1 March 2020).
[2] Learner, A., ‘Chinese Medicine and Migraine’ , Family Acupuncture and Wellness,, (accessed 1 March 2020).
[3] shen nong, ‘How Chinese Medicine Understands Headache Disorder’, shen nong,  (accessed 1 March 2020).
[4] Larkin, Marilynn, “ The Role in Serotonin in Migraine”, JAMA Migraine Information Center
Maciocia, G., The Practice of chinese Medicine The Treatment of Disease with Acupuncture and Chinese Herbs, London, Churchill Livingstone, 1994.


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