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Headaches: types, causes and treatments

Headaches are defined as pain “in any region of the head,” but the duration and intensity can vary depending on the cause of headache. In some cases, when accompanied by nausea, blurred vision, confusion and severe pain, a headache may require immediate medical attention. In other instances, headaches can vary from a mild discomfort to acute pain, and last anywhere from a couple of minutes (cluster headaches) to a few days (migraines). 

As a holistic therapist, I have worked with so many people who experience headaches, chronic or episodic, that I can definitely state that headaches are one of the most common reasons for seeking acupuncture, massage therapy or nutritional advice

In any traditional or holistic medicine, a headache, just like any other health disorder, is seen as a symptom of the whole body-mind equilibrium being tipped out of balance. The core therapeutic solution is to find where and why exactly the imbalance took place. 

The underlying cause of the imbalance can originate either in the mind, in emotional state, or in the body. That said, my nearly two decades of experience in acupuncture, massage therapy and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) led me to believe that the fundamental cause of nearly every dis-ease, headaches included, can be tracked down to a certain mental-emotional imprint, e.g. a strong traumatic experience, a negative belief about ourselves or the world around us, or a deeply rooted negative emotion (either conscious or unconscious). In many cases, I had started working with a patient on a physical level, and, after acupuncture, cupping or massage had resulted in only temporary relief, I ended up getting rid of pain permanently by working on the patient’s mental, emotional and behavioural patterns. 

For example, primary headaches, when they are not a symptom of another medical condition, can be a direct result of a person’s difficulty solving any given problem, intellectually. When an intense mental activity takes place in the brain, it is biologically necessary for the body to increase the supply of nutrients to the brain. As a result, vasodilation occurs and causes a headache.

Although in the not so distant past Western medicine used to somewhat argue holistic approach, nowadays more and more medical doctors tend to refer their patients - and those who suffer from chronic conditions in particular - to complementary practitioners like myself.


In this article, I wanted to outline both Western and holistic take on the most common types of headaches. By ‘holistic’ (a word that has become an umbrella term for so many unrelated things), I mean complementary therapies such as my own integrative method, based on traditional Chinese medicine and incorporating naturopathy, herbalism, psychosomatology, NLP, vibrational medicine and shiatsu.


Tension headache tends to be experienced as a dull, aching sensation around different parts of the head, often accompanied by tenderness or stiffness around the forehead, neck, or shoulder muscles.

In the case of tension headaches, pretty much everyone agrees that stress is a primary cause. Even so, in Western medicine, painkillers are quite often the only cure offered. Of course, more and more so, we speak of mindfulness, mediation and yoga as other methods to combat stress, but sometimes that’s just not enough.

This is because ‘stress’ can mean one thing to one person, and something entirely different to another. Personalised approach is needed to identify what exact part of general stress becomes a headache trigger for this particular individual in their particular life situation.


Headaches sometimes occur as a result of an allergic or intolerance reaction. The discomfort from these headaches is felt in your sinus area and often in the front of the head.

Commonly, we are used to treating this type of headache by thinning out the mucus that builds up and causes sinus pressure, by using a prescription or over-the-counter nasal spray.

Again, this offers a temporary relief, but also makes someone with an allergy to have to use the nasal spray again and again. 

In traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture, herbs and nutritional advice are the most popular prescriptions for allergies. All of these are seen as means to control the body's inflammatory reaction to allergens. But then, once again, thinking of a more holistic or integrative approach, if we want to eliminate the allergy altogether, we need to be prepared to find an answer to a question: what is causing the body to develop inflammatory reaction to a certain substance? Can a belief or an unconscious emotion be the reason why the whole system resorts to such a strong fight and flight response?


A migraine headache is often described as a pulsating, throbbing pain on one side of the head. It can be accompanied by blurred vision, lightheadedness, nausea, aura and other sensory disturbances. A migraine can last from a few hours to 2 -3 days.

Migraine can have a significant impact on the quality of life of someone who suffers from it. According to the WHO, migraine is the sixth major cause of days lost due to disability, worldwide. 

Depending on the severity of the condition, cures range from painkillers, to triptans, in some cases, even to a nerve surgery. In traditional Chinese medicine, migraines are believed to be caused by internal disruption concerning the liver, spleen, and kidney. Stagnated qi as well as diet rich in saturated fats are the other two possible causes.

In my experience, patients who experience migraines, quite often have suppressed anger, shame, guilt and self-depreciative patterns, originating in teenagerhood, early childhood or even infancy.


Cluster headache is a severe form of headache that comes in clusters and persists for a period of time, anywhere from 5 minutes to 3 hours. Some people suffer from chronic cycles of cluster headaches that last a year or longer. 

Among available treatments, local anesthetic injections to the the trigger points have proved to be most helpful. 

Regular acupuncture can also help with deactivating the trigger points and soothe trigeminal innervation, associated with cluster headaches.

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