Headaches according to Chinese Medicine

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Headaches can be the consequence of several so-called “patterns of disharmony” in Chinese Medicine.

Chinese Medicine sees the body as a system, not a sum of isolated parts. A "pattern" is when the system's harmony is disrupted, leading to symptoms or signs that something is wrong (like headaches here). It is similar to the concept of disease in Western Medicine but not quite: a Western disease can often be explained by several Chinese patterns and vice-versa.

A pattern often manifests itself in a combination of symptoms that, at first glance, do not seem necessarily related to each others. For instance here headaches is often associated with insomnia, coughing and asthma in the pattern “Rebellious Qi”. As you will see below, we have in record five patterns that can cause headaches.

Once identified, patterns are treated using medicinal herbs, acupuncture, and other therapies. In the case of headaches we’ve identified five herbal formulas that may help treat patterns behind the symptom.

We’ve also selected below the five medicinal herbs that we think are most likely to help treat headaches.

The five "patterns of disharmony" that can cause headaches

In Chinese Medicine headaches is a symptom for 5 patterns that we have on record. Below is a small explanation for each of them with links for more details.

Inula Flowers (Xuan Fu Hua) is the king ingredient for Xuan Fu Dai Zhe Tang, a formula used for Rebellious Qi

Rebellious Qi

Pulse type(s): Wiry (Xian)

Tongue color: Normal (light red), Red sides

Rebellious Qi is when Qi flows in the wrong direction. For instance, if one suffers from a rebellious Stomach Qi (a common case), the normal downward flow of Stomach Qi is disrupted and it goes upward instead. This may result in nausea, vomiting, belching or hiccupping.

In addition to headaches, other symptoms associated with Rebellious Qi include insomnia, coughing and asthma.

Rebellious Qi is often treated with Xuan Fu Dai Zhe Tang, a herbal formula made of 7 herbs (including Inula Flowers - Xuan Fu Hua - as a key herb). Xuan Fu Dai Zhe Tang belongs to the category of "formulas for a rebellious qi", which might be why it is often recommended for this pattern. Its main action as a formula is: "Regulates the downward flow of Stomach Qi".

Read more about Rebellious Qi here

The Lungs is a so-called "Zang" Organ. Learn more about the Lungs in Chinese Medicine

Wind-Cold invading the Lungs

Pulse type(s): Tight (Jin), Floating (Fu)

Tongue shape: Partially swollen

In addition to headaches, other symptoms associated with Wind-Cold invading the Lungs include fever, aversion to cold and sneezing.

Wind-Cold invading the Lungs is often treated with Ma Huang Tang, a herbal formula made of 4 herbs (including Ephedra - Ma Huang - as a key herb). Ma Huang Tang belongs to the category of "formulas that clear wind-cold", which might be why it is often recommended for this pattern. Its main action as a formula is: "Releases exterior cold".

Read more about Wind-Cold invading the Lungs here

The Liver is a so-called "Zang" Organ. Learn more about the Liver in Chinese Medicine

Liver Wind agitating Internally due to Liver Blood Deficiency

Pulse type(s): Wiry (Xian), Fine (Xi)

Tongue color: Pale

In addition to headaches, other symptoms associated with Liver Wind agitating Internally due to Liver Blood Deficiency include dizziness, insomnia and blurred vision.

Liver Wind agitating Internally due to Liver Blood Deficiency is often treated with E Jiao Ji Zi Huang Tang, a herbal formula made of 10 herbs (including Donkey-Hide Gelatin - E Jiao - as a key herb). E Jiao Ji Zi Huang Tang belongs to the category of "formulas that pacify and extinguish internal wind", which might be why it is often recommended for this pattern. Its main action as a formula is: "Nourishes Yin".

Read more about Liver Wind agitating Internally due to Liver Blood Deficiency here

Peach Kernels (Tao Ren) is the king ingredient for Tao He Cheng Qi Tang, a formula used for Blood Stagnation

Blood Stagnation

Pulse type(s): Choppy (Se), Wiry (Xian), Firm (Lao)

Tongue color: Reddish-Purple

Blood Stagnation, like the name indicates, is when Blood flow becomes Stagnant. It can happen in the whole body or in specific Organs.

It is one of the most important diagnostic conditions in Chinese Medicine because it is frequently the cause of intractable pain syndromes anywhere in the body.

In addition to headaches, other symptoms associated with Blood Stagnation include dizziness, abdominal pain and restlessness.

From a Western Medicine standpoint Blood Stagnation is associated with health issues such as Scanty Menstruation, Abnormal Uterine Bleeding or Heavy Menstruation.

Blood Stagnation is often treated with Tao He Cheng Qi Tang, a herbal formula made of 5 herbs (including Peach Kernels - Tao Ren - as a key herb). Tao He Cheng Qi Tang belongs to the category of "formulas that invigorate blood and dispel blood stagnation", which might be why it is often recommended for this pattern. Its main action as a formula is: "Dispels Heat and".

Read more about Blood Stagnation here

The Liver is a so-called "Zang" Organ. Learn more about the Liver in Chinese Medicine

Liver Qi Stagnation

Pulse type(s): Wiry (Xian)

Tongue color: Normal (light red)

When Liver Qi does not flow smoothly or regularly, it becomes Stagnant and in Excess. This leads to Heat accumulating in the Liver. The feeling of ‘Distension’ (zhang 胀) is the main symptom of Liver Qi Stagnation.

In addition to headaches, other symptoms associated with Liver Qi Stagnation include fever, irritability and constipation.

From a Western Medicine standpoint Liver Qi Stagnation is associated with health issues such as Low Breast Milk Supply, Mastitis or Breast Engorgement.

Liver Qi Stagnation is often treated with Xiao Yao San, a herbal formula made of 6 herbs (including Bupleurum Roots - Chai Hu - as a key herb). Xiao Yao San belongs to the category of "formulas that harmonize liver-spleen", which might be why it is often recommended for this pattern. Its main action as a formula is: "Harmonizes the function of Liver and Spleen".

Read more about Liver Qi Stagnation here

Five herbal formulas that might help with headaches

Si Ni San

Source date: 220 AD

Number of ingredients: 4 herbs

Key actions: Regulates Liver and Spleen. Eliminates Internal Heat.

Why might Si Ni San help with headaches?

Because it is a formula often recommended to treat the pattern 'Rebellious Qi' of which headaches is a symptom.

Other symptoms characteristic of Rebellious Qi include insomnia, coughing and asthma.

Read more about Si Ni San here

Ma Huang Tang

Source date: 220 AD

Number of ingredients: 4 herbs

Key actions: Releases exterior cold. Treats wheezing.

Why might Ma Huang Tang help with headaches?

Because it is a formula often recommended to treat the pattern 'Wind-Cold invading the Lungs' of which headaches is a symptom.

Other symptoms characteristic of Wind-Cold Invading The Lungs include fever, aversion to cold and sneezing.

Read more about Ma Huang Tang here

Bu Gan Tang

Source date: 1742 AD

Number of ingredients: 7 herbs

Key actions: Tonifies and regulates the Blood. Nourishes the Liver Yin.

Why might Bu Gan Tang help with headaches?

Because it is a formula often recommended to treat the pattern 'Liver Wind agitating Internally due to Liver Blood Deficiency' of which headaches is a symptom.

Other symptoms characteristic of Liver Wind Agitating Internally Due To Liver Blood Deficiency include dizziness, insomnia and blurred vision.

Read more about Bu Gan Tang here

Si Wu Tang

Source date: 846 AD

Number of ingredients: 4 herbs

Key actions: Restores and nourishes Blood. Stimulates Blood circulation.

Why might Si Wu Tang help with headaches?

Because it is a formula often recommended to treat the pattern 'Blood Stagnation' of which headaches is a symptom.

According to Chinese Medicine, Blood Stagnation can contribute to many health issues, including Heavy Menstruation.

Read more about Si Wu Tang here

Xiao Yao San

Source date: 1107 AD

Number of ingredients: 6 herbs

Key actions: Harmonizes the function of Liver and Spleen. Relieves Liver Qi stagnation. Nourishes the Blood.

Why might Xiao Yao San help with headaches?

Because it is a formula often recommended to treat the pattern 'Liver Qi Stagnation' of which headaches is a symptom.

According to Chinese Medicine, Liver Qi Stagnation can contribute to many health issues, including Mastitis.

Read more about Xiao Yao San here

The five Chinese Medicinal herbs most likely to help treat headaches

Why might Liquorice (Gan Cao) help with headaches?

Because Liquorice is an ingredient in several formulas indicated to treat headaches as a symptom, like Si Ni San or Ma Huang Tang for instance.

Liquorice is a Neutral herb that tastes Sweet. It targets the Spleen, the Stomach, the Heart and the Lung.

Its main actions are: Tonifies the Basal Qi and nourishes the Spleen Qi. Clears Heat and dispels toxicity. Moistens the Lungsexpel phlegm and stop coughing. Relieves spasms and alleviates pain. Harmonizes and moderates the effects of other herbs.

Read more about Liquorice here

Why might White Peony Root (Bai Shao) help with headaches?

Because White Peony Root is an ingredient in several formulas indicated to treat headaches as a symptom, like Bu Gan Tang or Si Wu Tang for instance.

White Peony Roots is a Neutral herb that tastes Bitter and Sour. It targets the Spleen and the Liver.

Its main actions are: Tonifies the Blood and preserves the Yin. Nourishes the Liver and assists in the smooth flow of Qi. Regulates the meridians and eases the pain.

Read more about White Peony Roots here

Why might Poria-Cocos Mushroom (Fu Ling) help with headaches?

Because Poria-Cocos Mushroom is an ingredient in several formulas indicated to treat headaches as a symptom, like Xiao Yao San or Ban Xia Bai Zhu Tian Ma Tang for instance.

Poria-Cocos Mushrooms is a Neutral herb that tastes Sweet. It targets the Spleen, the Heart, the Kidney and the Lung.

Its main actions are: Encourages urination and drains Dampness. Tonic to the Spleen/Stomach. Assists the Heart and calms the Spirit.

Read more about Poria-Cocos Mushrooms here

Why might Dong Quai (Dang Gui) help with headaches?

Because Dong Quai is an ingredient in several formulas indicated to treat headaches as a symptom, like Dang Gui Long Hui Wan or Xiao Yao San for instance.

Dong Quai is a Warm herb that tastes Pungent and Sweet. It targets the Spleen, the Heart and the Liver.

Its main actions are: Tonifies the Blood. Lubricates the Intestines. Relieve constipation. Promotes circulation and dispels Bi Pain. Reduce Dysmenorrhea and help with irregular menstruation.

Read more about Dong Quai here

Why might Fresh Ginger (Sheng Jiang) help with headaches?

Because Fresh Ginger is an ingredient in several formulas indicated to treat headaches as a symptom, like Gui Zhi Tang or Xuan Fu Dai Zhe Tang for instance.

Fresh Ginger is a Warm herb that tastes Pungent. It targets the Spleen, the Stomach and the Lung.

Its main actions are: Relieves the Exterior and disperses Cold. Warms and circulates Qi in the Middle Burner. Calms a restless fetus and treats morning sickness. Treats seafood poisoning.

Read more about Fresh Ginger here