Panacea for that pounding pain: TCM treatments for headaches

Headaches can vary in severity and, if bad enough, disrupt your work and daily routine.

In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), mild to moderate headaches are associated with a person's mental and physical fatigue, said Ms Pansy Yeo, TCM practitioner at Chong Hoe Health Products Chinese Medical Store.

But more severe headaches that can be debilitating arise from pathogens that obstruct the circulation of qi and blood in the body.

"The nature of the obstructing pathogen has a direct bearing on the intensity of pain. The more substantial the obstruction, the more intense the headache," she explained.

In TCM, a good flow of qi (vital energy) and blood, and a balance of yin (the element responsible for cooling organs) and yang (the element linked to heat) are needed for good health.

Headaches can be traced to the following syndromes, which are broadly classified into those derived externally (exogenous) and those derived internally (endogenous).


Causes: When wind - one of six exogenous climatic factors in TCM - invades the body through the nose, mouth, ears and even pores of the skin, energy flow in the meridians is disrupted.

This causes the constriction and obstruction of qi and blood in the body, resulting in pain.

Symptoms: An acute onset of headache that is often intense.

There may be flu-like symptoms, fever or general body aches, which can be aggravated by sudden changes in the weather.

The person has an aversion to wind and his pulse, when felt by a TCM practitioner, would be described as "floating".

Wind can also combine with other environmental factors to bring about different types of headaches.

Wind and heat: The headache will occur with a distending or splitting sensation. The person exhibits signs of "heatiness", such as a red tongue with a thin, yellowish coating.

Wind-heat headaches may be associated with the common cold, flu, tonsillitis and acute bronchitis.

It can also occur at the early stage of measles and mumps, as well as encephalitis, an infection that causes brain swelling, or meningitis, an inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord.

Wind and cold: When the air-conditioner is blowing directly at one's head or neck, pathogens of wind and cold can combine to attack the body.

In these instances, one's headache would have a tight, binding sensation.

One may experience chills, discomfort at the neck and back of the head, and have a tongue coating that appears thin and white.

Wind-cold headaches are most commonly associated with the common cold, flu and upper respiratory infections.

They may be diagnosed as migraine or trigeminal neuralgia, a nerve disorder caused by pressure on the nerve that carries sensations from the face to the brain.

Wind and dampness: Headaches caused by wind and dampness tend to be heavy and accompanied by digestive ailments, such as stomach flu.

The coating on the tongue is thick and white.

Dampness can invade the body when the pores are open, such as during sweating.

Food remedy for the symptoms: Make tea with 6g incised notopterygium rhizome and 10g chrysanthemum flowers.


An imbalance of yin and yang causes organs to dysfunction - mainly the liver, spleen and kidneys - and leads to the formation of pathogens in the body.

Such headaches are chronic, recurrent and usually intense.

The exact nature depends on the type of pathogens formed.

The following three problems can arise from imbalances in the body.

Phlegm accumulation

Causes: Phlegm is generated in the internal organs when dampness and fluids accumulate in the body.

This can be triggered by exposure to rain or humidity.

Symptoms: Headaches with a heavy sensation, often accompanied by giddiness and nausea, a tongue coating that is thick and white, and a smooth pulse.

Uprising of liver yang

Causes: This syndrome is episodic and usually triggered by emotional stress or anger.

When yin is deficient and fails to anchor yang, yang then rises and creates imbalance in the body.

Symptoms: The headache usually affects the temporal regions and has a distending sensation.

The person also feels irritable, has a bitter sensation in the mouth, a flushed face, insomnia, a taut pulse and a red tongue with a thin and yellow coating.

Blood stasis

Causes: Head trauma, bodily injury, or qi stagnation which affects blood circulation after a prolonged period of time.

Symptoms: The headache feels stabbing, is localised and usually comes about at night.

A dark tongue and bruised spots on the tongue may be seen.

Food remedy for the symptoms: Make tea with three slices of dried tangerine peels, 3g gastrodia and 3g sichuan lovage rhizome.


If a person is tired or malnourished, there is insufficient qi, blood, yin or yang reaching the head and its corresponding meridians.

Deficiency syndromes are often linked to a person's mental and physical fatigue.

Blood deficiency

Causes: Headaches can arise when blood does not reach the head properly and from a lack of essential nutrients.

These headaches are more frequent in women of reproductive age.

Symptoms: Dull headaches, usually at the temporal regions and mostly in the afternoons.

This may be accompanied by heart palpitations, insomnia, giddiness, a pale face, a pale tongue and fatigue.

Kidney deficiency

Causes: Lack of kidney essence - due to genetics and ageing - and improper nourishment.

Symptoms: Headaches with a light sensation that usually occur at the crown of the head.

They are aggravated by fatigue and usually alleviated after sleep. Other symptoms include tinnitus, lower back aches and a thin pulse.

Food remedy for the symptoms: Make tea with three pieces of Chinese red dates and 3g Chinese angelica.

Acupoint massages

Try these massages to help provide relief to headaches associated with the different TCM syndromes.

Massage each area for 30 counts.


Use one or both hands to gently massage the sides of the head above the ears.

You can do this on one or both sides of the head at the same time.


Identify the two depressions at the back of the neck near the hairline. You should feel slightly sore when you press on these areas with your thumbs.

Massage in a circular motion.


Touch the left shoulder with your right hand. Do the same for the other shoulder.

Using all five fingers on each hand, knead the area near the spine as if you are picking up something.

Pregnant women and seniors who are weak should avoid this massage as it may overstimulate their qi flow.


Herbal tea


• 3g Sichuan lovage rhizome

• 6g tall gastrodia tuber

• 10g Indian bread

• 6g dahurian angelica root

• 3g tangerine peel

• 3 Chinese dates

• 1/2 tsp rosemary

• 1/2 tsp lavender

• 800ml water


• Bring water to a boil to brew the Sichuan lovage rhizome, tall gastrodia tuber, Indian bread, dahurian angelica root, tangerine peel and Chinese dates together.

• Turn the heat down and simmer for 20 minutes.

• Strain the herbs before pouring the hot brew into a bowl filled with the rosemary and lavender.

• Serve the tea.



This article was first published on January 26, 2016.
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