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Acupuncture & Headaches

Updated: Jun 9, 2023

A headache is a common condition that causes pain in the head or face area; pain can also radiate up the neck. Headaches affect one in six Americans with prevalence highest among women.[1]

Other symptoms associated with headaches include nausea, vomiting, dizziness and tenderness in the face and scalp.

Learn what causes headaches and how acupuncture for headaches can alleviate pain and discomfort.

What causes headaches?

There are many reasons why you may experience a headache. Certain triggers can activate signals between the brain, blood vessels and nerves that cause blood vessels to constrict and muscles to tighten; this results in pain signals being sent to the brain.

Common causes of headaches include:

  • Stress triggers the release of the stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline that creates physical changes in the body. Stress increases blood pressure and causes blood vessels to tighten. Decreased blood flow to the brain can cause headaches.[2]

  • Illness: colds, flu, hay fever, sinusitis and ear infections can trigger the onset of a headache.

  • Injury such as a car accident or a blow to the head.

  • Food triggers: eating too much sugar, processed meats (hot dogs, bacon, sausages, deli meats), aged cheeses, pickled foods, certain fruits (especially dried fruits), artificial sweeteners, chocolate and process foods that contain additives, colors, flavor enhancers and preservatives can bring on a headache in some people.[3] [4] [5]

  • Skipping meals and not fuelling the body and brain sufficiently. This triggers your blood sugar levels to drop, signalling your brain to release certain hormones that tighten blood vessels which can cause a headache.[6] [7]

  • Poor posture or sitting hunched over desk for long periods of time can create tension in the neck, shoulders and upper back, often leading to trigger points that can cause pain and a headache.[8]

  • Excess screen time causes eye strain that can result in a headache around the temples and eyes.[9] [10]

  • Dehydration. A lack of fluids can lead to a ‘dehydration headache’ where a pulsating and throbbing ache is felt on both sides of the head.[11]

  • Environmental factors such as air pollution, strong-smelling chemicals or fragrances, smoke, lighting and changes in weather.[12] [13]

  • Tiredness and lack of sleep.[14] [15]

  • Drinking too much caffeine or alcohol. Caffeine withdrawal can also cause a headache.[16] [17]

  • Myofascial trigger points (also known as trigger points) are highly sensitive, irritated spots within a muscle band, fascia (connective tissue surrounding organs and muscles) or ligament. They present as “knots” or nodules in the muscles, and cause an aching pain.

Types of headaches

There are lots of different types of headaches; however, the three main types of headaches are:

  • Tension headaches are the most common type of headache that causes mild to moderate pain in the head, neck and eye area. People often describe tension headaches as tightness on both sides of the head and pressure behind the eyes.

  • Cluster headaches are a more severe type of headache where the pain is intense and prolonged. The pain is described as a piercing or burning feeling around the eyes and throbbing in the head. They are called cluster headaches because they tend to happen in a cluster period: this could be one to three times per day, lasting anywhere from 15 minutes to several hours, and ongoing for several weeks or months. Cluster headaches can be debilitating and affect one’s quality of life.

  • Migraine headaches are another type of severe headache that causes a throbbing or pounding pain. A migraine tends to concentrate on one side of the head and can also trigger other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light.

Headache Trigger Points

Trigger points can form in the neck, shoulders and upper back, and often lead to headaches. Studies have shown that myofascial trigger points are very common in tension-type headaches and migraines.[18] [19] Trigger points appear to be related to the frequency, severity and duration of migraine attacks, and are commonly found in the suboccipital and temporal areas.[20]

In one particular study, 143 women who suffered with episodic and chronic migraines all exhibited head and neck-shoulder trigger points which were linked to the onset of their migraines. The triggers points were located in the masseter, temporalis, suboccipital, sternocleidomastoid, upper trapezius, and splenius capitis muscles.[21]

The most common trigger points that can cause headaches are listed below by various headache locations.

Trigger Points that may cause frontal headache:

  • Sternocleidomastoid

  • Semispinalis Capitis

  • Frontalis

  • Zygomaticus Major

Trigger points that may cause posterior headache:

  • Trapezius

  • Sternocleidomastoid

  • Semispinalis Capitis

  • Semispinalis Cervicis

  • Splenius Cervicis

  • Suboccipitals

  • Occipitalis

  • Digastric

  • Temporalis

Trigger points that may cause temporal headache:

  • Trapezius

  • Sternocleidomastoid

  • Temporalis

  • Splenius Cervicis

  • Suboccipitals

  • Semispinalis Capitis

Can acupuncture help headaches?

Acupuncture is a safe and effective modality for relieving and preventing headaches. By placing small, thin needles along acupuncture points on the face, head, neck, shoulders, feet and hands (in between the thumb and fore finger), the nerves beneath the skin stimulate biochemical reactions to bring the body back into balance.

Acupuncture for headaches helps to:

  • Reduce sensitivity to pain and stress by triggering the release of endorphins; these are chemical messengers that act on the opiate receptors of the brain to relieve stress and pain.[22]

  • Decrease inflammation by stimulating the release of vascular and immunomodulatory factors called beta-endorphins, CGRP (calcitonine gene-related peptide), substance P and cytokines. These neuropeptides (small proteins produced by nerve cells) exert a potent anti-inflammatory effect.[23]

  • Promote physical and emotional wellbeing by regulating stress hormones in the body (cortisol, serotonin, noradrenaline, dopamine). When these hormones are balanced, you respond to and cope with stress much better. A decrease in brain serotonin levels has been linked to tension headaches and migraines as it causes blood vessels to constrict.[24] [25] Acupuncture helps to balance serotonin levels.[26]

  • Relax tight muscles in the neck and shoulders and release trigger points.

  • Increase local microcirculation in the head, neck and face areas. This improves blood flow, helps reduce swelling and regulates the constriction and dilation of blood vessels.[27]

How many acupuncture sessions do you need for headaches?

Here are Morningside Acupuncture, as a starting point, we recommend one to two acupuncture sessions per week for four to six weeks for headache relief. On your first session, your acupuncturist will advise you accordingly after taking a medical history, assessing the severity and occurrence of your headaches and how quickly you respond to the acupuncture.

Relieve headaches naturally with acupuncture

A headache is a painful and uncomfortable condition that can be triggered by poor posture, stress, excess screen time and unhealthy dietary and lifestyle habits. Acupuncture is a highly effective modality for relieving and preventing headaches by reducing pain and inflammation, relaxing muscles, balancing hormones and improving circulation and blood flow.


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