A Complementary Approach to Managing Headaches and Migraines: Western and Chinese Medicine Perspectives

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

Headaches and migraines affect millions of people worldwide. Western biomedicine understands that headaches and migraines are caused by various factors, including tension, stress, hormonal changes, and structural abnormalities in the brain. Western medicine treats headaches and migraines depending on the cause of the symptoms. Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and aspirin, are often recommended for mild to moderate headaches.

For severe migraines, prescription medications such as triptans or ergotamines may be prescribed. Additionally, lifestyle changes such as avoiding triggers, getting regular exercise, and practicing stress reduction techniques may prevent headaches and migraines.

According to Chinese medical theory, headaches and migraines are often seen as a result of imbalances in the body. These imbalances are specifically related to the TCM-Liver and TCM-Gallbladder organs. The Liver, in Chinese Medicine, is responsible for the smooth flow of Qi (vital energy) throughout the body and is closely related to the head. When there is a blockage or stagnation of Qi in the Liver, it can lead to headaches and migraines. The Gallbladder, on the other hand, is responsible for the smooth flow of emotions, and when it is imbalanced, it can lead to stress, tension, and headaches.

Chinese Medicine, including herbal medicine and acupuncture, is often used to manage and treat headaches and migraines. Herbal medicine treats headaches and migraines with herbs’ qualities, flavors, and energetics. The Shan Han Lun, a classical Chinese medical text, is often used to diagnose headaches and migraines based on external factors such as weather conditions and seasonal changes. The treatment approach typically involves the use of herbs with cooling or warming properties, depending on the type of headache or migraine. For example, cooling herbs such as chrysanthemum flower and Chinese Mint may be used for headaches caused by heat. In contrast, warming herbs such as ginger and cinnamon could be beneficial for headaches caused by cold.

Acupuncture, on the other hand, is based on the concept of qi flow and the stimulation of specific points along the meridians to restore balance. Acupuncturists may use the Four Levels theory to diagnose and treat headaches and migraines. This theory describes disease progression through different stages. The treatment approach may involve addressing the underlying cause of the headache or migraine, such as stress or hormonal imbalances.

There are several scientific studies that support Chinese herbal medicine and acupuncture in the treatment of headaches and migraines. For example, a study published in the Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine found that a specific herbal formula reduced migraine frequency and intensity. Another study published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews concluded that acupuncture is effective in chronic headache management [3,6].

In Chinese medicine, headaches and migraines are often associated with imbalances in the Five Elements theory. This theory describes the relationships between the five elements (Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water) and their corresponding organs, emotions, and seasons. Treatment may involve balancing these elements to alleviate symptoms.​

While Chinese medicine’s effectiveness in the treatment of headaches and migraines may vary from person to person, many people have reported significant improvement in their symptoms. It is important to consult with a licensed practitioner and use Chinese medicine as a complementary therapy alongside conventional medicine.

Chinese Medicine may use a variety of techniques to manage headaches and migraines, including acupuncture, herbal medicine, and dietary therapy. Acupuncture involves the insertion of fine needles into specific points on the body to restore the smooth flow of Qi and blood. Herbal medicine may be prescribed to nourish and support the Liver and Gallbladder. Dietary therapy may involve the consumption of certain foods and the avoidance of others to help balance the body’s internal environment.

A complementary approach using both Western and Chinese Medicine can provide a holistic approach to managing headaches and migraines. While Western Medicine may focus on identifying and treating underlying conditions, Chinese Medicine may help to address any imbalances in the body that may contribute to headaches and migraine symptoms. It is important to note that neither approach should be seen as a cure or treatment for headaches and migraines. Instead, it should be seen as a way to manage symptoms and improve overall well-being.


Xu, Y., Zhang, J., Deng, Y., Liu, J., Zhou, L., Liu, Y., … & Wu, J. (2021). Acupuncture and Herbal Medicine for Migraine: Evidence-Based Alternative Treatments. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 15, 713897. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2021.713897

Liu, Y., Wu, J., He, L., Guo, X., & Yang, Y. (2020). Chinese Herbal Medicine for Migraine: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 26(2), 101–112. https://doi.org/10.1089/acm.2019.0178

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