What Your Headache Means in Oriental Medicine

The Headache Problem

Oriental Medicine contains a long tradition for helping headaches with acupuncture. Headache is considered an imbalance which should be treated, whether acute or chronic. All the yang acupuncture channels meet in the head. In a healthy state, they circulate qi (energy) that allows sight, hearing, taste, and smell. When there is a problem in the body, the improper circulation of qi (energy) creates the headache. The head and face give the acupuncturist indications about what is going on elsewhere in the body. 

A headache is an imbalance. It does not matter whether the headache comes from stress, from improper nutrition, a hormone imbalance, from another health condition, from alcohol, or from the menstrual cycle, we call it what it is: an imbalance. It is possible to visit an acupuncturist with a headache or migraine as your only complaint, because it can be treated and the practitioner can help you discover the root cause. Headaches and migraines may be common, but they are not “normal” and no one should have to live with them. Our modern culture does not usually take headaches seriously. But headaches should be taken seriously because they could be signaling a problem elsewhere in the body. 

The Difference Between Headaches and Migraines

Headache is the general term that describes pain in the head, which has a number of causes and may include the face and neck. A migraine is a headache that is severe, long-lasting, a chronic problem, or includes other symptoms with it (such as blurry vision or aura). The headache in Oriental Medicine includes what we call “migraine”. Therefore, the word “headache” is used throughout this article for the sake of clarity.

Causes of Headaches

Common headaches come from imbalances in daily life. More severe headaches often have a disease as their origin, but can be exacerbated by these little daily imbalances. Here are some common headache contributors:

  • Stress
  • Dehydration
  • Overworking 
  • Improper nutrition
  • Irregular meal times
  • Lack of sleep
  • Excess “screen time”, which strains the eyes and fine muscles of the neck and head
  • Qi stagnation caused by the emotions of anger, worry, sadness, grief, or fear
  • Qi stagnation caused by lack of exercise
  • Deficiency caused by lack of rest, lack of nutrients, or another illness (example: Yin Deficiency)
  • Medication interactions
  • Toxins (from dietary, allergen, or chemical exposure) 
  • Withdrawal from drugs or alcohol

Oriental Medicine Diagnosis 

In Classical Oriental Medicine diagnosis the acupuncturist takes into account four main factors when looking for the source of a headache. These are: Symptoms, Pulses in six locations, appearance of the Tongue, and facial complexion. In your consultation your acupuncturist will ask many questions about the headache such as: What time of day does it start? How often do you have them? Is the pain sharp or dull? They will be connected with questions about other symptoms you may be having. All these questions are guiding the practitioner toward a suitable treatment and diagnosis for the Root (cause) and Branches (resulting illness). Do not be alarmed if you are asked about things that may seem like they have nothing to do with the headache. You might be asked if you experience vivid dreams or if you crave a specific food. It is part of the diagnosis process.  

The Headache Code

Two basic concepts encompass most types of headaches: The head map and the Zang Fu (organs). The head map describes a possible origin of the headache based on its location on the head:

  • Forehead: Spleen, stomach, or digestive system 
  • Sides of the head / temples: Gallbladder, Liver, or channel bi (blockage) or stagnation
  • Top of the head: Liver or interior heat
  • Back of the head: Bladder channel problem, Wind or Cold invasion
  • Behind the eyes: Gallbladder, Liver, Stomach or San Jiao (Triple Burner) channel
  • In the eyes: Problem in a channel, usually: Stomach, Bladder, Gallbladder 

If the Zang Fu (organs) are affected, the following usually describes their symptoms which accompany the headache: 

  • Liver: anger or stress, feeling “stuck”, muscle tightness, feeling hot, dizziness
  • Heart: mania or anxiety, red cheeks, sleep disturbance, cold hands and feet, heat in the face
  • Spleen: worry, brain fog, digestive upset or indigestion, nausea, desire to lie down, tiredness, heavy head, arms or legs
  • Lung: sadness, depression or grief, lack of organization, low energy, shortness of breath, feeling “lost”, sensitive skin or outbreaks
  • Kidney: feeling fearful or a deep anxiety, low back pain, lack of motivation, possible knee pain / bursitis, ringing in the ears

Types of Headaches

These are some examples of Oriental Medicine diagnoses that often associate with headaches and present the cause (root) or accessory condition (branch) found with the headache. If any of these sound like you, please seek help quickly. 

  • Liver Yang Rising: Headache on top of the head, dizziness, ringing in the ears, red face, a bitter taste in the mouth. Headache symptoms are exacerbated by stress or frustration (see the next section for an explanation of Liver Heat). 
  • Yang Ming headache: The headache is located around the forehead and eyes, may occur after a meal with discomfort in the chest, and comes with constipation, upset stomach, or “bad” bowel movement, such as urgent or painful
  • Liver / Gallbladder impacted: Vertex of the head is painful, or just behind the eyeball. One sided head pain, perhaps accompanied by nausea or epigastric pain. In the case of an impacted gallbladder, the headache may come with shoulder pain, just after eating fried or fatty food, and involve nausea or vomiting.
  • Blood deficiency: dull headache, usually all over the head, feeling cold, pale complexion, pale tongue or lips, very low energy or motivation
  • Wind: The headache moves around, “travels” or begins suddenly at the back of the head near the neck (at the Wind Gate). 
  • Phlegm: confusion, disorientation, extreme brain fog or feeling heavy or “icky” always accompany the headache
  • Blood stagnation: a sharp pain in one spot
  • Qi stagnation: a dull pain in one spot

A Word About a Hot Liver 🔥

Liver Heat is a condition that comes from an imbalance in the 5 Elements (usually the Liver, wood and the Spleen, earth). It can also come from Liver Qi stagnation and creates symptoms of: red or bloodshot eyes, feeling hot, extreme stress, muscle tension, pain just below the chest (diaphragm area), dizziness, ringing in the ears, dry mouth or a bitter taste in the mouth. In extreme cases: high blood pressure, constipation, dream-disturbed sleep and nosebleeds. I have heard many healing professionals other than acupuncturists speak about Liver Heat. It is one of the easiest conditions to recognize and it is also a sign of our times. The modern world is increasingly complex, fragmented, and fast, creating stress which generates a harmful liver heat. The liver does not respond well to stress or to toxic foods (processed, overly fatty or fried, etc). When researching the Liver for the article, I came across this quote: “The Liver is the most common cause of chronic headaches.” – Giovanni Maciocia, Foundations of Chinese Medicine p. 524

What to Do About It 💆

If you are experiencing headaches, it is important to seek help sooner rather than later so that your acupuncturist can pinpoint the root cause of your headaches and feel better faster. If your headaches come from a digestive problem, seeking information about food energetics (traditional food therapy) or whole foods will help you make strategies to clear it up. If the headache comes from stress or anxiety or is made worse by stress emotions, you may look at meditation or various methods for emotional clearing in addition to the help of a wise counselor. 


The head contains the “sea of marrow” of Oriental Medicine, the brain. It contains our life experience and memories and is said to be one of the places where the soul resides. Think of the sayings, “eyes are the windows to the soul” and “you’ve been all up in your head”. The head is our perception and feeling about our life. No matter the cause of your headaches, it is wise to take a close look at your lifestyle and consider what may need to be changed or improved for your health and happiness. 

Published by familycareacupuncture

A Classical Acupuncture Clinic in Mobile, Alabama

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