Types of Chronic Headaches
Following a concussion, also called mild traumatic brain injury, chronic headache symptoms are extremely common. These sensations vary from person to person, and even day to day for the same person depending on the headaches point of origin. Discomfort radiates from pain sensors that may have become inflamed or compressed as a result of injury. These are located inside the arteries, nerves, and muscles of the head, as well as in the membranes surrounding the brain, or the meninges. With thousands of receptors involved, headaches are very complex, and each person experiences their own unique pain response. With chronic headaches, everything from intensity and duration to type of pain is subject to variation. Researchers have narrowed down this myriad of symptoms into five categories of headaches:
- post traumatic
- analgesic-rebound headaches (which result from withdrawal from analgesics, used for pain relief)
It is very important to be as detailed as possible in describing your headache symptoms to a doctor, as treatment options provided depend on the type of headache presented. Conventional approaches often call for the use of prescription medication, which can prove to be extremely helpful, but often come with side effects. It may also take some trial and error to find what works with your unique symptoms.
Acupuncture for Chronic Headaches
Acupuncture is a complementary approach that is growing to be widely recognized as an effective treatment for headaches of all kinds, especially chronic headaches. This ancient form of Chinese medicine is centered around the body’s qi (chi), or natural energy flow. An acupuncturist will first do an evaluation of the patient to gain an understanding of their symptoms, and then will insert incredibly fine needles just below the surface of the skin at specific points on the body that correspond to the pain’s location. For example, a needle in the right pinky toe will help alleviate pressure experienced around the left eye – a common symptom of cluster headaches. The needles will remain in place for about a half an hour before the acupuncturist will return to remove them.
The most common reason that people hesitate to try acupuncture is fear of the needles. They are so thin, almost hair-like, that you actually do not even feel them! Occasionally, you may feel a slight burning sensation that lasts for about 10 seconds after the needle is placed, but goes away very quickly on its own. At your first appointment, be sure to ask for the finest needles available – some acupuncturists prefer to use thicker needles, but they will have the finer on hand.
Acupuncture restores the body to a state of homeostasis, which in turn has a pain relieving effect, as well as reduces inflammation throughout the body. The needles stimulate blood flow and trigger a release of endorphins by sending a signal to the brain via the central nervous system, thus activating some of the body’s natural pain relieving mechanisms. There has also been research that shows how acupuncture prompts the release of oxytocin, which regulates the parasympathetic nervous system and could slow the body’s “fight or flight” mechanisms, easing you into relaxation. Also, of course, simply lying down for half an hour and allowing the needles to work their magic can be relaxing in itself! It is not uncommon to fall asleep during the treatment.
The effects of acupuncture can be felt almost immediately – often 20 minutes into the first session. You may or may not feel relief between your first appointments depending on your body’s response to the treatment. Acupuncture takes time and multiple treatments are often needed to help with chronic headaches. Over time, you will be able to go longer and longer between appointments as your body becomes used to the state of homeostasis that the acupuncture induces, and will be able to sustain that state on its own for longer periods of time. You may start off going to acupuncture twice a week for chronic headaches, but with time may only need to go once a month.
The necessary time put into acupuncture, especially in the beginning of treatment when you need to go more often, is certainly seen as a downside to some. But if you stick with it and get to the point where you don’t need it as often, you will thank yourself later. The only other drawback is that acupuncture is still seen as a complementary approach, and not as a conventional treatment. As such, it is often not covered by insurance. However, specialists remain hopeful that acupuncture will continue to become more widely accepted as an effective means of treatment for headaches and many other types of chronic pain, as it has proven helpful to so many people over thousands of years.
If you or a loved one is living with chronic headaches, we are located in the greater Boston area and have two excellent acupuncturists on our integrative team of experts. For an appointment or consult, please call 800.500.9971.