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.

A Healthy Body is One You Don’t Have to Think About

There have been a number of times that I’ve treated someone for a particular pain, and when they next come in they mention a different pain. “How’s the shoulder/knee/etc pain you came in for last time?” “Oh!” they’ll often say, “I forgot all about that!” It always makes me happy that folks can so thoroughly forget about pain they were in before; I had the same experience over the holidays.

I bought some new running shoes a few weeks ago, and after I took them out for the first time, I had a really jarring pain in kind of an odd place. At first I thought there was something in the shoe digging into the underside of my big toe, but the pain was still there when I walked around barefoot afterwards. I pressed into the bone and the tendon, and the pain didn’t show up there at all; there were no cuts or calluses on my big toe either. I limped around in pain for a day before I remembered that I’m an acupuncturist, and there’s something I could do about it!

When I had 15 minutes to spare, I swabbed the area with an alcohol wipe, popped in a few needles along the extent of the painful area, and used an e-stim machine to pass some electrical current along the bottom of the toe.

I had some things to take care of afterwards, so I promptly forgot about what previously I’d had to think about with every step.

It wasn’t till a few days later that I remembered, “Hey, what ever happened to that stabbing pain in my toe?” It’s been a few weeks and plenty more runs and it still hasn’t reared its head again.
Pain and health are funny things in that regard. Being healthy, for most of us, simply means that our bodies don’t insist themselves upon our attention when we’re trying to do other things. The luxury of health is that it allows us to put our attention where we want. Of course, it’s impossible to go through one’s life completely oblivious to the creaks and groans (and sometimes earthquakes) that our bodies are subject to. I’m just glad that there are options.

“Do you sterilize your acupuncture needles?”

In my time working as an acupuncturist, there are a few questions that I’ve heard again and again. One in particular tends to come up when I ask a client if they have any questions before we get started with their first treatment:

“The acupuncture needles – you sterilize them, right?”  

In the old days of acupuncture in America, needles were indeed sterilized and reused after treatments. However, in today’s world of prions and sterilization-resistant bacteria, we need to be more careful. Consequently, all of our acupuncture needles are used only once – after your treatment, the needles are destroyed by a medical waste company. This way, we know that every needle we use is sterile and in the best possible condition. 

At Blue Lotus Acupuncture, we follow the standards for clean-needle technique set by the Council of Colleges of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, a strict protocol developed using guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the U.S. Public Health Service. These precautions ensure minimal chances of contamination of any needle. Your comfort and safety are foremost to us at Blue Lotus Acupuncture.

Hiking injury in New Mexico and the acupuncture remedy

We have returned from yet another vacation in New Mexico. Those of you who know me are well aware of my connection and love for that part of the country. My husband, Herman and I are lucky and blessed to be able to travel there once or twice a year. Usually we plant ourselves in and around Santa Fe, but this time we explored the southwest part of the state. We spent time in Albuquerque, Truth or Consequences and Silver City, NM.

Herman on the trail

While hiking above Silver City at the Bear Mountain Lodge, Herman pulled a muscle in his calf and was experiencing pain, decreased mobility, and muscle stiffness. He feels that this sports injury occurred due to the lack of pre-stretching, cool weather and that we were hiking at high altitude. Lucky for him, I came prepared: acupuncture needles, essential oils and arnica gel at hand. After one treatment he was experiencing 90% less pain and then a few days later he had another treatment and was virtually back to normal.

Anna on the trail.

Enjoy your day, Anna


Spring is a beautiful time of year to initiate new beginnings, so I thought that adding a blog to our website would be fitting. This blog will be a place for you to come to for interesting information about all sorts of things to do with health and the healing process. Along with me, Ryan will also be contributing to this effort in attempt to bring a greater awareness to the fields of Acupuncture and Asian Medicine. Enjoy your day, Anna