A Complementary Approach to Managing Cluster Headaches: Understanding Chinese Medicine

(Organ names in Chinese medicine differ from Western medicine’s understanding).​

Cluster headaches are a type of primary headache disorder characterized by recurrent, severe headaches that occur in clusters or cycles. These headaches are often described as a sharp, stabbing pain behind one eye or in the temple region, and can last anywhere from 15 minutes to three hours. While western medicine understands the causes and symptoms of cluster headaches, there are alternative approaches to managing the condition, such as Chinese Medicine.

Western Biomedical Understanding and Treatment Approach

According to Western Medicine, cluster headaches are caused by the activation of the trigeminal nerve, which is responsible for sensation in the face. The exact cause of the nerve activation is still unknown, but there are certain triggers that can cause a cluster headache, such as alcohol consumption, smoking, and high altitude. Treatment options for cluster headaches include preventive medications, such as calcium channel blockers and corticosteroids, as well as abortive medications, such as triptans and oxygen therapy.

Chinese Medical Theory and Approaches

In Chinese Medicine, cluster headaches are considered a manifestation of an underlying pattern of disharmony in the body. This pattern is thought to be caused by an imbalance in the Zang-Fu organs, which are the internal organs of the body that are responsible for various physiological functions. The most common organs involved in cluster headaches are the Liver and Gallbladder.​

There are several Chinese Medicine theories and approaches that can be used to manage cluster headaches. These include:

Five Elements Theory: This theory suggests that each organ in the body is associated with one of the five elements (Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water). In the case of cluster headaches, the Wood element (associated with the Liver) is considered to be in a state of disharmony.

Channel Therapy: This approach involves the use of acupuncture or acupressure to stimulate specific points along the body’s energy channels. By stimulating these points, energy flow can be restored, and pain and other symptoms can be relieved.

Qi and Blood Theory: According to this theory, cluster headaches are caused by a deficiency or stagnation of Qi (vital energy) and Blood in the Liver and Gallbladder. Herbal medicine and dietary changes can be used to tonify Qi and Blood and promote healthy organ function.

Shan Han Lun and Wen Bing: These are two different theories that are used to diagnose and treat illnesses. Shan Han Lun is used to diagnose illnesses caused by external factors, such as wind or cold, while Wen Bing is used to diagnose illnesses caused by internal factors, such as emotions or dietary habits.

Latent Pathogen Approach: This approach suggests that cluster headaches may be caused by a latent pathogen, such as a virus or bacteria, that is residing in the body. Herbal medicine and other treatments can be used to expel the pathogen and restore balance to the body.

Complementary Approach to Management

While Western Medicine offers effective treatment options for cluster headaches, Chinese Medicine can offer a complementary approach to management. By addressing the underlying patterns of disharmony in the body, Chinese Medicine can help to reduce the frequency and severity of cluster headaches and improve overall quality of life.

It is important to note that Chinese Medicine should be used as a complementary approach to Western Medicine, not as a replacement. It is recommended that individuals seek the advice of a qualified practitioner of Chinese Medicine and work with their Western medical team to develop a comprehensive treatment plan.


Liguori, S., & Moretti, V. (2019). Acupuncture for the Treatment of Cluster Headaches: A Case Series. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 25(4), 429-433.

Liu, J., Zhang, H., Zhang, Y., Li, Y., Chen, J., Liang, X., … & Liang, F. (2016). Chinese Herbal Medicine for Cluster Headaches: A Systematic Review. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 22(7), 553-563.

Melchart, D., Streng, A., Hoppe, A., Brinkhaus, B., Witt, C. M., Wagenpfeil, S., … & Linde, K. (2009). Acupuncture for the Treatment of Cluster Headache: A Randomized, Controlled Trial. Journal of Pain, 10(7), 717-726.

Zhang, M., Xiong, J., Liu, Y., & Wang, L. (2019). Herbal Medicine for Cluster Headaches: A Systematic Review. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 47, 102203.

Zhang, J., Cao, Y., Zhu, Y., & Xie, Q. (2019). The Efficacy of Acupuncture and Acupressure in Managing Cluster Headache: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2019, 1-16.