By Anne Carruth
Licensed Acupuncturist, Oriental Medicine Practitioner
As an acupuncturist, there are few things more satisfying than curing a headache with a few well-placed needles. Headaches vary from person to person, but their response to acupuncture tends to be consistent. And because headaches can be effectively treated with acupuncture, they also respond to acupressure. What does this mean for you? It means that when you can’t get in to see me, you can do some acupressure at home!
There are three areas I recommend targeting when a headache creeps up:
1. Occiput: Many headaches result from neck and shoulder tension incurred by stress, posture, or activity. Multiple neck and upper back muscles attach to your occiput (the base of the skull), and can refer pain into the head when tight or inflamed. My personal go-to treatment for headaches, especially those associated with occipital or neck pain, involves lying on the floor with a rolled up towel under my neck.
- Lie on the floor, grab a roll of paper towels, or roll up a towel – about 5 inches in diameter, and place it under the curve of your neck. Adjust the diameter of the towel, so that you feel fully supported under your neck, with your head still resting on the ground.
- Be sure the towel is pushed up against the base of your skull (away from your shoulders), putting pressure on the two big neck muscles attached at the base of your skull. There is an acupuncture point on each of those tender attachments, thus, you’ll be stimulating them with acu PRESSURE. These points are part of the Urinary Bladder Meridian, which begins at the eye, wraps up and around the skull, parallels the spine to the hips, then runs down the legs to the little toes. Pretty fitting for head, neck, and back pain!
- You may also wrap the towel in a heating pad while lying on it, to further encourage muscle relaxation in your neck.
- Lie on your towel roll for 10-30 minutes. You will begin to feel your headache dissipate as those neck muscles unbind.
2. Hand points: There is a magic little point on each hand that works wonders for headaches. The point, located in the fleshy webbing between your thumb and index finger, is considered the “Command Point of the Face”. It is part of the Large Intestine Meridian, which begins on the index finger, runs up the arm and neck, curves around the mouth, and ends next to the nostril. This point lessens nearly any headache, but is particularly effective for frontal or facial headaches. Think forehead pain, dehydration headaches, sinus headaches, allergies and toothaches.
- Use your right thumb and index finger to locate the acupuncture point on your left hand. Squeeze the thickened, muscular webbing between the bones of your left thumb and index finger. You should notice a tender spot near the junction of the thumb and finger bones. The correct point will be in the meaty area of your hand, verses the thinner webbing, and noticeably achy when squeezed.
- You can squeeze with constant pressure, or “pulse” your squeezing.
- Hold or pulse until your headache begins to lessen (usually 1-3 minutes), and then repeat on the opposite hand. You may need to repeat this several times until the headaches fully resolves.
3. Temples: Many people don’t realize that they clench or grind their teeth, especially in times of stress. Several muscles of the jaw reach up and attach to the temple region, referring pain to the sides of the head. There are also multiple acupuncture points located on the temples. Most of these points are on the Gall Bladder Meridian (imaged below), which works with the Liver Meridian to combat stress and irritability, detoxify your body, and relieve physical tension.
- Find these points by slowly sliding your fingers up and down along your temples and hairline. You will probably hit upon tender, ropey bands of muscles running back into your hair, along the sides of your head.
- Most of these points will be between the level of your eye and mid forehead, just within your hairline. Get adventurous, though, and explore your own anatomy. Palpate higher, lower, more forward on your face, and farther back into your hair. You’ll know you are in the right spot when you find those achy, ropey bands of muscle running more or less horizontally.
- After locating these knotted bands, apply direct pressure to the muscles until the ropiness melts under your fingers (usually within 1-3 minutes). The pressure will be unpleasant initially, but once those muscles let go, you’ll feel a wave of relief.
- Repeat this throughout the day, especially when you notice yourself clenching, or feel a temporal headache manifesting. If you know that you clench or grind your teeth at night, or have TMJ issues, massage those muscles before going to bed, too. Encouraging this muscular release before drifting off will reduce nighttime clenching, and can help break the pattern.
For stubborn headaches, or those not specific to your occiput, face, or temples, use all three techniques together. All will mitigate stress and tension, and send energy down to relieve pain and pressure in your head.
So the next time you catch yourself reaching for some Excedrin, give these techniques a whirl. Be patient, and repeat the acupressure over 15-30 minutes – about the same time it would take for a pain killer to kick in. I bet you’ll be pleasantly surprised with your body’s own healing abilities.