Migraine 101 – Causes & TCM Treatments

What is a Migraine?

A migraine is defined as a periodic attack of a headache on one or both sides of the head with a series of accompanying symptoms.

Migraine usually develops from puberty (or childhood in rare cases) and reaches its peak around 35 to 45 years of age. Women are more susceptible to migraine attacks as compared to men due to certain hormonal factors.

Stages of a Migraine Attack


A migraine attack usually occurs in the following four stages. Note that not everyone would experience all stages, but may skip certain ones. 

1. Prodrome:  Symptoms: increased thirst and urination, constipation, fatigue and neck stiffness. 

2. Aura: Symptoms: visual disturbances (seeing floaters or bright sparks), one-sided weakness and numbness in the body, speaking and swallowing difficulties, hallucinatory voices or sounds and so on.  Thankfully, this stage is not commonly experienced. 

3. Attack:  This is the most commonly experienced stage.  Symptoms: nausea, vomiting, hypersensitivity to light and sound, dizziness, blurred vision, confusion and more. 

4. Post-drome:  Symptoms that sometimes follow the attack stage: confusion, moodiness, elation, fatigue. 

Conventional Migraine Treatments

Painkillers are the most commonly used treatment. While they may alleviate symptoms of a migraine attack, they are usually unsuccessful in breaking the cyclic nature of migraine. Prolonged usage of painkillers may cause liver and kidney damages. Stronger classes of painkillers can even wear down the stomach lining and cause gastric ulcers.

For sufferers who do not respond well to conventional painkillers, a class of drugs called triptans are commonly prescribed. Surgery may also be offered as a treatment option for long-term sufferers of migraine.

TCM Treatments for Migraine

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Acupuncture involves inserting thin needles into specific points on the body to stimulate energy flow. It is best employed during the attack stage of a migraine episode. By stimulating certain acupoints and muscles, a migraine attack can be aborted within a few minutes to several hours.

acupuncture for migraine
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Tui Na

Tui Na therapy is a form of Chinese therapeutic massage targeting the body’s acupressure points to relieve various symptoms. It can be an effective alternative to acupuncture for those with an aversion to needles.

By correctly identifying and applying pressure to correct acupoints in the neck and head regions, a migraine episode can be aborted. It can also help to prevent and reduce the intensity for future migraine episodes.

tuina massage on the neck

Gua Sha

Commonly used in conjunction with acupuncture or acupressure therapies, scraping therapy or ‘gua sha’ uses a smooth-edged tools made of jade or other materials to remove myofascial trigger points (commonly referred to as “knots”) that form in the neck and head muscles due to prolonged pain. 

A woman receiving gua sha therapy
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Herbal Medication

Chinese herbal prescriptions can also effectively alleviate migraine by addressing the body’s underlying root causes that might be contributing to migraine. They can also be taken in between migraine episodes to prevent future attacks. 

chinese herbal medication in powder form

What Cause Migraine? A TCM Perspective

According to Chinese medicine theory, these are the most common root causes of a migraine. 

air conditioningInvasion of external wind, cold, heat, dampness due to the environment
For example, facing the air-conditioning directly for long hours of time can constrict the blood vessels in the head, causing less blood flow to the head and triggering migraine episodes.

Imbalances of the body’s vitals due to improper lifestyle
For example, long-term stress and fatigue can lead to troubled sleep, which eventually leads to blockages in Qi and blood; triggering migraine episodes.


Types of Migraine in TCM

According to the official compilation of TCM diseases published in 2011, these are the most common migraine classifications in Chinese medicine. 

  1. Liver-Yang Aggression: Pulsating or throbbing headaches triggered by heat, stress or foul temper, dizziness and confusion, dry mouth, insomnia, painful and itchy eyes, yellowish urine.
  2. Stagnant Blood: Localised sharp piercing pain with throbbing sensations, painful when pressed on even when not going through a migraine attack, dry mouth in the night, dried and flaky skin, sharp pains in the eyes.
  3. External Wind and Cold: Headaches triggered by cold or dry air, mild dizziness, stiff neck, aversion to cold environment, pain alleviated by a hot compress.
  4. Liver-Qi Stagnation: Expanding, throbbing headaches, triggered by stress or negative emotions, depression, mood swings, breathlessness, loss of appetite.
  5. Phlegm Blockage: Heavy and pulsating headaches, extreme dizziness and sleepiness, nausea and vomiting, blurred vision, indigestion, reduced urination, irregular bowel movements.

DIY TCM Migraine Tips

The following are some tips by our TCM physicians that you can do on your own to provide some relief to migraine symptoms:

  1. Running an ice cube from EX-HN5, 太阳 ‘Taiyang’ to M-HN3, 印堂 ‘Yintang’.
  2. Applying a hot compress on the neck region.
  3. Caffeinated beverages may help in relieving migraine for some sufferers.
  4. Avoid exposure to bright flashing lights or loud noises.
  5. Proper management of stress level.
  6. Yoga, meditation and various forms of stretching exercises may help.migraine

Note: Information provided is not a substitute for a physician or any form of medical care. Individual symptoms differ due to different body constitutions and diagnosis. Consult a licensed TCM practitioner for accurate diagnosis and treatment.

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