Eight causes of headaches, their origins and their treatment

Headache is localized pain that occurs in the head, neck, or above the shoulder. Frequent headaches not only affect life, relationships and work, but also have a chance to turn into depression. Dr. Teng Cheng Liang, director of Cheng Liang Medical Clinic, suggests eight common causes of headaches, explains their sources, symptoms, and how traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) treats them.


Migraine is a chronic, recurring headache that is often accompanied by various autonomic nervous system symptoms. Migraine attacks are usually one-sided, accompanied by pulsating sensations, and can last from 2 to 72 hours. Symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, photophobia, and sensitivity to sound. These accompanying symptoms can make the pain of a migraine worse.

Clinical statistics show that one-third of migraine patients may experience the onset of symptoms, such as distorted vision, increased sensitivity to sound, light and smell, and physical disturbances, followed by the onset migraine.

Migraines occur more frequently in adolescents and young adults, and more often in women than in men. In some people, they are caused by high blood pressure.

Cluster headache

This is a recurrent unilateral headache, involving stabbing pain behind one eye or in the temple. It may be accompanied by tearing, nasal congestion, pupil changes or drooping of the eyelids. Symptoms can last from a few minutes to several hours.

Cluster headaches tend to occur periodically and resolve on their own after a while. The patients are almost always male: this type of headache rarely affects women.

Temporal artery vasculitis

This is a type of vasculitis or inflammation often occurring in the temporal and ophthalmic arteries. The cause of the disease is unknown, but current research has shown that it may be linked to an autoimmune disease.

The most common symptom of temporal artery vasculitis is recurring headaches, usually in the temporal lobe. There may also be painful pressure on the temples and blurred vision. If left untreated, temporal artery vasculitis can lead to blindness.

In addition to headaches, other symptoms include muscle aches, muscle weakness, weight loss, joint pain, and fever. The average age of onset for this disorder is around 75 years old. More female patients suffer from this disease than males.

Toxic substances

There are many chemical toxins that cause headaches, including carbon monoxide, lead, nitrates, and plasticizers. These substances can easily make headaches worse.

Plasticizers are common hormone disrupting chemicals, also known as endocrine disruptors. They are frequently found in fast food packaging and can affect the food itself. They can directly interfere with the body’s hormonal balance and produce toxic reactions. Once the blood-brain barrier is broken, plasticizers can directly affect the brain, causing migraines, vomiting, dizziness and other symptoms.

Tension headache

Tension headaches are the most common type of headache. These headaches are felt as a tight ring of pain, most pronounced at the back of the head.

Tension headache pain is often treated today with antidepressants, heart rate reducers, muscle relaxants, and pain relievers.

brain tumors

Although a headache rarely indicates a brain tumor, if a brain tumor is present, a headache is the most common symptom. The tumor compresses the brain tissue and causes edema or swelling. This, in turn, increases intracranial pressure and leads to headaches. It is usually persistent or progressive and becomes more pronounced after waking up.

With brain tumor headache, the pain is on the side where the tumor is growing. But as intracranial pressure increases, the headache becomes more pronounced and more widespread.

If the tumor continues to grow, it may cause vomiting, blurred vision, and spasms or seizures. If the tumor is located in the prefrontal lobe, it can cause personality changes; in the temporal lobe, it can lead to memory or speech disorders; in the cerebellum, it can cause gait instability and movement disorders; in the motor nerve, it may cause weakness in the contralateral limb; and in the auditory nerve, it can lead to hearing loss or tinnitus.


Patients with meningitis present with fever, headache, stiff neck, and impaired consciousness. The headache is caused by inflammation of the brain and high pressure, usually in the occipital region or the back of the head. It is accompanied by nausea and vomiting and may worsen upon waking.

Common pathogens that cause meningitis are pneumococcus, meningococcus, staphylococcus aureus, and viruses such as coxsackie, enterovirus, herpes, and Japanese encephalitis virus. Tuberculosis, mycobacteria, and syphilis can also cause meningitis.

When a person with meningitis has impaired consciousness, confusion, impaired speech, and physical weakness, this indicates a brain infection and is called “encephalitis.”

Head trauma

Headaches caused by trauma usually occur a few hours or days after the head has been injured. About 30% of patients with head trauma continue to have headaches after two months. This is called a “post-concussive headache”.

Many cases of head trauma are due to car accidents, and these headaches are usually felt in the head and even in the neck. The pain is felt as pulsating, constricting, squeezing, stabbing or swelling in nature.

Some traumatic headaches are so severe that they can lead to incapacitation. In addition to headaches, head injuries can cause personality changes, memory problems, inability to concentrate, distraction, fatigue, trouble sleeping, dizziness, irritability, depression and frustration.

Conventional pain relief treatments include antidepressants, antiepileptic drugs, and in severe cases, opioid drugs. However, painkillers are best used sparingly, as they can cause rebound headaches, headaches that become more pronounced with frequent use of painkillers.

Chinese medicine treatment for headache

In Chinese medicine, it is believed that weather changes such as wind, cold, heat, humidity, drought, and fire can help things develop in nature. But if the climate change is abnormal and the resistance of the human body is weak, it can become a cause of disease, called “the six excesses causing disease”, namely: excessive wind, cold, heat, humidity, drought and fire. .

These are considered external causes of disease. Internal causes include the human body’s lack of energy, emotions, excessive fatigue and other factors.

External and internal wind, cold, fire

Traditional Chinese Medicine views humanity as part of nature. It is believed that energies that arise outside the body, such as wind, cold and fire, can also arise inside the body and affect the proper functioning of specific organs. If left untreated, they can cause headaches and other ailments. For total health, Chinese medicine treats these energies by dispersing so that the organs heal and work together harmoniously.

Here are some specific headache symptoms and how traditional Chinese medicine would treat them:

Headaches with cold symptoms: Headaches are frequently associated with the common cold. Cold symptoms such as sneezing, runny nose, stuffy nose and cough can be caused or made worse by outside wind and cold. Use TCM to properly treat these symptoms, internal wind and cold must be dispersed. Recommended herbs: peppermint, Divaricate Saposhnikovia (fangfeng), Manchurian Wildginger (Xixin), Incised Notopterygium rhizome and root (qianghuo), Taiwan Angelica root (Baizhi) and Szechwan lovage rhizome (chuanxiong).

Headache with irritability, poor sleep: This suggests that liver fire (the counterpart of external fire, but involving the hepatic system) is very strong. The treatment consists in calming the fire of the liver. Recommended herbs: Stem of Uncaria Sharpleaf with hools (gouteng), sea ear shell (shijueming), gardenia (zhizi) and Baikal skullcap root (huangqin).

Headaches with mental fatigue, poor color and facial appearance: This suggests a problem with blood flow to the head. In this case, the treatment is to use herbs to nourish the blood and calm the liver wind. Recommended herbs: Chinese angelica, dried Rehmannia root (shengdi), Fleeceflower tuber root (HeShouWu), Szechwan Lovage rhizome (Chuanxiong) and chrysanthemum.

Headaches with digestive problems: Chinese medicine also treats digestive problems arising from the stomach and spleen. These two bodies must work together. The health of the spleen and stomach is vulnerable to excessive consumption of alcohol and sugary and fatty foods. Dizziness, nausea, loss of appetite, and loose stools all suggest spleen deficiency. Recommended herbs: Tall Gastrodiae (Tianma), Large-headed Atractylodes rhizome (Baishu) and Ternate Pinellia (Banxia).

Headaches accompanied by lower back pain, weak knees: This indicates that the kidneys may be deficient, which can lead to headaches and forgetfulness. The treatment is to replenish the kidneys and liver and replenish the essence of the kidneys. Recommended herbs: Rehmannia, goji, chinese privet and eucommia.

Headaches due to trauma: Can be chronic and throbbing, and patients have often suffered head trauma. The patient’s tongue will often have a purple spot at the tip. This type of headache can be relieved by improving blood circulation. Recommended herbs: peach kernel, red peony, motherwort and wild ginger from Manchuria (Xixin).

Most headaches can also be treated with acupuncture, targeting various pressure points. Of course, the simplest treatment for headaches caused by harmful toxins is to stay away from toxic substances. However, with the exception of headaches caused by brain tumors, Chinese medicine has proven effective for centuries in treating almost all types of headaches with selected herbs and acupuncture.

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