When A Headache Isn’t Just a Headache – Differentiation in Chinese Medicine

by Ryan Collins, L.Ac.

The advice offered in this article is intended for informational purposes only.  Use of this column is not intended to replace or substitute for medical, psychological, or professional advice. If you have specific concerns or a situation in which you require professional, psychological or medical help, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified specialist. The opinions or views expressed in this column are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed professional, physician or mental health professional. This article, its author, and its publisher are not responsible for the outcome or results of following any advice in any given situation. You, and only you, are completely responsible for your actions.

For most of us, a headache is a headache: we don’t care what it takes to get rid of it, we just want it gone.

But through the lens of Chinese medicine, a headache is often just the tip of the iceberg. If we want to know the nature of it (and therefore know what to do about it!) we need to know what lies beneath the surface.

It’s with this in mind that Anna and I ask a variety of questions about your health when you come for your appointment. Our aim is to understand what your body needs to bounce back on its own. To do that, we need to understand on what level of your body the imbalance is occurring, and what sort of intervention is needed.

Let’s take our headache for example. Chinese medicine has many categories and sub-categories to hone in on just what approach is needed to help. If our headache comes on only at the end of the day and is gone by the time we wake up, it likely falls into the category of a deficiency-type headache. A sudden, sharp, throbbing headache that goes away after we exercise, by contrast, would represent a particular kind of excess-type headache. The headache that precedes a cold is regarded as external, while the headache arising behind your eye from tight neck muscles would be internal.

Headaches, like many other symptoms, can be differentiated dozens of different ways, and each requires a different intervention. Some people can resolve their headache with a little bit of massage in the right spot; others can rub all day to no effect. That’s why it’s so important that we have as full a portrait as we can of the underlying factors leading to your unique health needs.

You’ve likely noticed that during your treatment, we will seldom treat only where it hurts. Some points are better for encouraging your body to supplement deficiencies, others to disperse excesses; some encourage the body to relax, others stimulate it to work harder.

The strength of a holistic medicine such as Chinese medicine is its ability to focus on the layered components of your health. If we don’t clearly understand a problem, we won’t be able to fix it.