By Dr. Daniel Lee, L.Ac. OMD, Ph.D.

Symptoms of Migraines:
Migraines often occur in 10% of people. Women are three times more likely to have migraines than men.  The symptoms are severe, often one-sided, headaches around the temple or behind one eye lasting anywhere from 2 hours to 2 days.  They can spread to both sides in severe cases and cause nausea, vomiting, and photophobia.  They also can have a pre-onset aura 12 to 36 hours prior such as blurred vision and mood changes.

Cause of migraines:
The current theory is that the pain is caused by vasodilation of cranial blood vessels which in turn increases the inward pressure on the cerebral cortex.  Such inward pressure makes migraines patient feel that the head is “splitting or exploding”.

Treatments for Migraines:
The western medical approach is to reverse the vasodilation by using medications to cause vasoconstriction, or shrinking the diameter of the blood vessels in between the skull and the cerebral cortex, the extra-cerebral intracranial space.  Medications like Imitrex, Zomig, Maxalt, Amerge, Frova, and Axert produce selective vasoconstriction to relieve pain for about 2 to 24 hours.  These medications come with the unwanted side effect such as dizziness, drowsiness, fatigue, chest, jaw, or neck tightness.  A study from Harvard Medical School showed that “Unfortunately, recurring headaches with sumatriptan (Imitrex) develop within the first 24 hours in 20% to 40% of people who have taken the drug.”*

Other medication, like Migranal, are a non-selective 5-HT receptor agonists ergotamine derivatives.  It too causes the vasoconstriction to relieve headaches.  It also comes with the side effects of nausea and vomiting.  Finally, there are analgesics such as Excedrin Migraine whose caffeine does the vasoconstriction but also keeps migraine patients awake at night.

Acupuncture Treatment for Migraines:
According to the Traditional Chinese Medicine, “The pain is often as result of reduced flow of blood and energy.”   In my 25 years experience, I have come to the belief that the vasodilation in the brain is our body’s compensatory response to the reduced blood flow to the brain as the result of tension.  Therefore, the treatment approach is to treat the root cause of the problem by relieving the tension to maximize the blood flow to the brain.  Once the brain senses the normalized blood flow, the blood vessels will, as numerous cases have shown, stop its dilation and start to constrict back to its normal diameter in the extra-cerebral intracranial space in as short as 15 to 30 minutes.  This approach reduces the vasodilation by giving the brain what it wants, more blood, not more drugs.  In return, the brain gives us what we want, the migraines pain relief, from its own vasoconstriction.  This acupuncture approach not only eliminates the side effect of the drugs, but it also vastly reduces the reoccurrence.  Even for those frequent migraines sufferers, once the tension is removed with 6 to 12 treatments, the result is years of being migraine free.  My youngest patient was only 6 years old when he first saw me in 1989 for about 8 treatments.  Now in college, he has been migraine-free. It has strengthened my conviction that treating the root cause of the migraines is the best way to go.  That is why I love to practice acupuncture and Chinese medicine.  They work with our body by giving it what it needs, not by forcing it to do what we think it should.


*Reviewed By: Harvey Simon, MD, Editor-in-Chief, Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Physician, Massachusetts General Hospital