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Am I Having a Headache or Migraine? How Can I Treat Them?

Last Updated: Aug 25, 2023 | Head Pain

“What a headache!” This phrase has become such a common thing to say when we are facing a frustrating situation. Indeed, headaches are annoying to deal with. Most of us usually wait for the throbbing, irritating pain inside our heads to pass. But when you wake up the next day, the pain starts again. Now you find yourself constantly irritated, and you can no longer focus on your work.

Perhaps you need to start treating your headache seriously. But what exactly is a headache? Are you experiencing something more severe like a migraine instead?  How can you treat them? These are important questions to accurately identify what condition you are having so that the right kind of treatment can be provided for you.

headache or migraine

What is a headache?

Headache is a general term used to describe pain in different parts of the head. The pain usually occurs on either one or both sides of the head and can vary from mild to severe. In most cases, each occurrence can last between a few minutes to a few hours.

There are a few types of headaches.

The most common type is tension headache, which is a mild to moderate pain across your head, like having a tight band around your head. You may experience other forms of discomfort like neck strain.  

headache or migraine

If you have a fever or runny nose alongside your headache, you are most likely having a sinus headache, which happens when the sinuses in your forehead, cheekbones, and bridge of the nose are inflamed, which block the channels to expel the mucus. The build-up of mucus in your sinuses can increase pressure around the face and forehead, causing pain.

headache or migraine

However, if you are experiencing a sudden, intense pain on one side of the head or behind your eyes, you may have a cluster headache. The pain occurs episodically, usually around the same time daily for several weeks. As it affects the eye, you might also have red, swollen, or drooping eyes. Cluster headaches are usually mistaken for migraines because of overlapping symptoms like sensitivity to light and sound. However, those with cluster headaches are more likely to experience sensory sensitivity on one side of the head only and might feel restlessness that those with migraine do not have.

headache or migraine

What is a migraine?

Migraine is a neurological condition that is accompanied by severe or chronic pain lasting from a few hours to days. Unlike tension headaches, migraines typically have a more intense, throbbing pain that occurs on either one or both sides of the head, extending to the eyes, neck, shoulders, and abdominals. Unlike cluster headaches, migraine pain usually develops slowly and can last from a few hours up to a few days.

Other than the severity and duration of the pain, what makes migraine different from headaches is the presence of other symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and sensory sensitivity. A key defining feature of migraines is sensory disturbances like an aura or light haze. While not all cases of migraines include auras, those who have it will experience blurred vision, slurred speech, flashing lights, tingling, etc. These symptoms worsen when exposed to light.

Migraine usually occurs in 4 stages:

  1. Premonitory phase: Before the migraine starts, you may start to feel changes like mood swings, food cravings, sensitivity to light, sound and smells, constipation, or stiffness around the neck.
  2. Aura phase: You may start having blurry vision, blind spots, or see zigzag lines across your field of vision. Your motor skills may be affected as well, including slurred speech, brain fog, or difficulty in understanding others. You may also experience tingling in your limbs.
  3. Headache phase: This is when the throbbing pain kicks in, and the symptoms during your aura phase may worsen as well.
  4. Postdrome phase: After a few hours or days, your headache may subside, though you may still feel disoriented.

Now that you know which one you might be experiencing: headaches or migraines, we need to understand the causes of your symptoms to treat them properly.

What are the causes of headaches?

The causes of headaches are spilt into 2 categories: primary and secondary.

Primary causes are usually independent events where your headaches are not a symptom of another medical condition. This is usually from lifestyle factors like stress, lack of sleep, smoking, and alcohol. These habits change the chemical activity in your brain, which commonly results in tension or cluster headaches.

Secondary headaches are usually symptoms of an underlying medical condition or injury.  Conditions like sleep disorders, brain tumors, head or spine trauma will result in tension headaches. The most common secondary cause for sinus headaches is sinusitis, which could be caused by a fever or allergies that develop inflamed sinuses.

For cluster headaches, there could be disruptions in the nerve pathways in the base of the brain, affecting the trigeminal nerve which is responsible for sensations in the face and eyes, which explains the eye pain.

Causes of Migraines?

Like headaches, migraines can also be caused by environmental factors like stress, insomnia, and excessive alcohol or caffeine. Lifestyle factors like intense physical exertion or medication can alter your chemical activity within the brain, causing migraines. For women, hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle or pregnancy could be a trigger as well. If you have a family history of migraines, your genetics may play a role.

The above are western perspectives of what headaches and migraines are. However, from the eastern perspective, there is a slightly different take on the causes of your pain.

What is TCM’s perspective on headaches and migraines?

In TCM, headaches and migraines are overlapping conditions characterised by pain in the head. In TCM theory, there are 2 main causes of pain. The first is the stagnation of the qi and blood flow, causing the obstruction of the meridian points and leading to pain (不通则痛). The second cause is the deficiency of the yin and yang in the various organs (不荣则痛).

What causes stagnation and deficiency? This is divided into 2 board categories: external factors (外感) and internal factors (内因). External factors are the invasion of external pathogen such as wind, cold, dampness and heat. As these pathogens invade our heads, they stagnate the qi and blood flow, triggering headaches. Sitting in an air-conditioned room for prolonged hours, or getting dehydrated outdoors are common events for inducing headaches.

On the other hand, internal factors are caused by pathogenic factors developed in the body such as excessive heatiness and phlegm, or deficiency in certain parts of the body. If you have been feeling stressed or sleep-deprived lately, perhaps getting a good night’s sleep could ease your tension headaches.

Clearly, there are many causes of headaches. To find the exact reason, the physician will have to know the frequency, duration, and location of your pain. If your headache lasts less than 2 weeks, it is most likely due to invasion of external pathogenic factors. Otherwise, it’s likely from internal factors.

Knowing the location of your pain is important to determine where in the meridian pathways are disrupted. According to TCM perspective, there are several meridian pathways that travel to the head, namely known as:

  • Shao Yang (少阳), located at the temporal side of the head
  • Tai Yang (太阳), located in the occiput region
  • Yang Ming (阳明), located at the forehead region
  • Jue Yin (厥阴), located at the vertex

By pinpointing the location, the physician is then able to use acupoints that is affiliated with the affected meridian pathways and administer acupuncture or tuina to ease your headache. They can also prescribe suitable herbal medications to target the regional pain site.

The type of pain matters too. Sharp pains are associated with blood stagnation that is obstructing the blood flow in the respective meridian points. Dull pains, on the other hand, usually indicate a qi or blood deficiency in the brain. The malnourishment can also cause dizziness and even fainting.

Like all pain-related conditions, headaches are a huge disturbance to your everyday life. If left untreated, the pain can worsen your emotional and physical health, in turn causing your headaches to become worse. To stop this cycle of pain, targeted treatment is necessary to restore your health.

What are the TCM treatments for headaches and migraines?

There are various methods that can be used to treat headaches. The most common types are herbal medication, acupuncture, and tuina.

Herbal medication

There are various herbs that can be used to treat headaches. They are useful especially for headaches caused by allergies to strengthen your body and prevent the headaches from coming back.


Acupuncture and Tuina

Acupuncture and tuina are commonly used methods to treat various headaches. It involves inserting fine needles into acupoints and muscles in the neck and head regions. When this is administered, especially when you are in the middle of your headache episode, it will help erase the pain by re-establishing regular blood flow to your head. Acupressure and tuina provide similar effects, reducing the intensity of pain and strengthening the body to prevent future occurrences of headaches.  

 Some ways of acupuncture and acupressure helps in the recovery of pain are as follows:

  • Eliminate external pathogenic factors such as wind, cold, heat, and dampness.
  • Replenish the yin and yang deficiency in the various affected organs.
  • Calm the liver and suppress the hyperactivity of the liver yang.
  • Promote qi and blood flow over the head area.

Acupoints for DIY Massage

If you are looking for a quick DIY pain relief, the most common acupoint used to treat headaches is the Feng Chi(风池).

headache or migraine

Rub the 2 spots at the back of your occipital for a few minutes will to relieve pain and tension. However, should the pain persists, we strongly suggest you to visit our physician for a consultation and get the appropriate treatment.

Another acupoint is He Gu(合谷). In ancient Chinese literature, there is a saying “头面合谷收“, which means all head and face-related pains can be treated by He Gu acupoint.

headache or migraine

You can rub and apply pressure at the back of your hand, between the base of your thumb and index finger.

These DIY massages would be helpful for temporary pain relief if you are in the middle of work and need a quick stimulation. However, nothing is more important than your health. To fully resolve your symptoms, it is best to create free time to seek a professional therapist for an acupuncture or tuina session.


Get the Appropriate Paincare Today

Singapore Paincare TCM Wellness integrates an east-west approach to our treatments for better outcomes. Our physicians and therapists undergo training in Singapore Paincare Academy (administered by Singapore Paincare Medical Group) to gain a better understanding of clinical conditions so that together with their TCM expertise, they can help patients get better.

If you are keen to relieve your headaches and migraines, book an appointment with us today!

TCM Singapore
Categories: Head Pain