How to find the cause of your headache

How to find the cause of your headache

More than thirty years ago when I studied Chinese medicine in university, I remember one of my teachers told us that when you have a case of headaches, especially those who suffer from them frequently, the first thing you should think is not how to stop the pain, but help the patient in finding the cause of the pain.

Headaches are one of the most common disorders seen in our clinic and the symptoms strongly disturb the quality of people’s lives, both at home and at work. Almost everyone has had an experience of headache. It can occur at any age, some may last only a short while others are long-lasting and frequent. Headaches may occur on their own or be combined with other symptoms.

In this article, I would like to share with you how to find the cause of your headache using traditional Chinese medicine. I hope my experience of treating this issue will help you to resolve your headaches for good.

1. The Common causes of headache: which type do you have?

In Chinese medicine, headaches and migraine are not considered as separate conditions and we always talk about them together.

i) Due to blood stagnation
People who have this type of headache usually have a history of prior injury. Chinese medicine considers that any injury occurring around the upper part of the body (such as neck, head, upper back, shoulder, arm injury), whether from a long time ago or just recently, will affect the circulation around this area. This will affect the circulation by disrupting flow and causing blood stagnation. If the blood stasis is not cleared quickly it will cause poor circulation around the region where to injury occurred, especially around the neck and shoulder region. This will affect the blood flow to the head, causing headaches.

This type of headache has the following characteristics: the headache is usually in the same place, the pain is sharp and stabbing pain, the pain usually lasts longer and maybe more severe in the evening or start from early morning when you wake up, for women the pain may become more severe before or during menstruation, some may also have neck or shoulder pain/discomfort before the headache. In the clinic we also find that these people have the following: the tongue is dark and bruised & the pulse is not smooth. In women, the headache may be combined with polycystic ovaries, endometriosis and period pain.

Our suggestions for headache due to blood stagnation:

  • If you have the type of headache which is mentioned above, you should also treat the region of your new or old injury whilst you are undergoing treatment for your headaches. This is important as the injury is the cause of the headache.
  • I recommend the following to improve your circulation (especially in the region of your injury): exercise, keeping your body warm, using a hot water bottle in the area of the old injury to improve the circulation.
  • I recommend the following ideas for diet habits: avoid drinking frozen/cold water (especially in the cold season), you can drink warm or room temperature water instead, you can eat food which have warm characteristics (please see my articles on diet therapy for suggestions).  These recommendations are beneficial for improving circulation and preventing blood stasis.

ii) Weakness in the body (Qi & Blood deficiency)
People who suffer these types of headaches, usually have the following conditions in their body: weakness, iron deficiency, long-term illness, post-operation or recent labour.  All of these conditions can cause the body’s Qi and Blood to be deficient and the deficiency can affect flow of circulation to the head causing headaches.

This type of headache has the following characteristics: the pain is a dull ache and lasts for a long time, the ache comes and goes and becomes more severe after doing activities or if you are tired, the pain will usually disappear after resting. The body will also experience the following symptoms: dizziness, lethargy, shortness of breath, pallor, women’s menstruation may be scanty, headache may occur after the period.  Some of the cases may be associated with iron deficiency, chronic fatigue syndrome, under-reactive thyroid or chronic internal organ disease.  In the clinic, we often find that patients usually have a deep and thready pulse and the tongue is on the pale side.

Our suggestions for headache due to deficiency:

  • Avoid overworking and be sure to get enough rest and sleep. Avoid strong exercise until your body is stronger.  For women, avoid exercise during menstruation.
  • I recommend eating a certain amount of nutritious foods which will help to increase your Blood, Qi and energy, such as: Chinese red dates, goji berries, beef bone soup and eggs (for more suggestions please see my articles on diet therapy).
  • I suggest that while you are treating the headaches, you can also pay more attention to strengthening your body’s deficiency, as deficiency in the body is the cause of your headaches.

iii) Stress (Liver and Gall Bladder disorder)
I have found through my clinical experience that this type of headache is very common due to our busy lifestyles causing stress and pressure. Chinese medicine considers that this stress and pressure will affect the Liver and Gall Bladder and can cause the Blood vessels and surrounding muscles to constrict and to be tight.  This will affect the Qi and Blood circulation in the body, especially in the neck and head region.  Due to this, the Qi and Blood may become stagnant in this region causing headaches.

This type of headache has the following characteristics: the headache occurs more so on the side or top of the head, when the headache becomes severe eye pain is associated (as the Liver and Gall Bladder channels dominate these areas).  The body may also experience the following symptoms: very stressed, easily anxious or depressed, neck and shoulders often feel tight or painful, insomnia or vivid dreams, sluggish bowel movement or abdominal bloating.  For women, further symptoms may be present: the breasts may be painful or full before the period, PMS, the headache is more severe before or during the period.

For this type of headache the following diseases may also occur: high blood pressure, diabetes, thyroid dysfunction, irritable bowel syndrome or depression.

Our suggestions for headache due to stress:

  • Reduce your stress and emotional situations from your lifestyle or job.
  • Do regular relaxing exercises, especially in the green outdoors (the Liver likes the green colour). I recommend medium and mild exercise such as walking, swimming, tai chi, yoga, light/slow jogging or slow bike riding.
  • Listen to soft music or meditation to relax.
  • Balance and strengthen your Liver and Gall Bladder while you are undergoing treatment. It is important to do this as the Liver and Gall Bladder are the cause of your headache.
  • Eat certain foods which are beneficial for the Liver and Gall Bladder, such as: celery, carrots, oranges, bananas, fresh lemon, green tea, peppermint tea (for more suggestions please see my articles on diet therapy).
  • Make sure you have enough sleep. While the body is sleeping most of the Blood will be stored in the Liver giving this organ the opportunity to rebalance.

iv) Other causes of headaches
Headaches also can be one of major symptoms cause by sinusitis, hay fever, cold and flu, fever, lack of sleep, poor vision and more.

2. How to find the right cause and treatment for your headache?

When you visit our clinic for help, we always use traditional Chinese diagnosis methods to check your body and find the cause of the headache. This method includes pulse & tongue diagnosis and questioning of your individual signs and symptoms.

We will tell you exactly the cause of your headache after using this diagnosis method. We will set up the suitable principle of treatment according to the cause of the headaches and choose certain treatments such as herbal medication, acupuncture, cupping, scrubbing or Chinese remedial massage.

We will also give you suggestions for your lifestyle and diet according to your individual case in order to assist in a quick recovery and future prevention.

I hope that this explanation will help you to have a happy and painless life.


Dr Ping Wang is the clinic founder and senior practitioner of Ping Ming Health. She has over 30 years of experience in traditional Chinese medicine teaching and practice. Dr Ping especially enjoys sharing her knowledge of Chinese medicine through our popular clinic articles, seminars and clinical training of students and practitioners.

  • Molly

    I found this most interesting reading, I am 73 and doing my best to live a healthy life style, I am following the Goji berry method along with Manuka honey, green tea, bananas and vegetables.
    As I do not have milk in my tea now should I be taking a calcium subsidies

    Molly Robinson,

    16 July, 2012
  • Michele Haslam

    I am writing on behalf of my daughter who suffers migraines one week before her period and the week of her period. She is 17yrs of age. She is currently completing year 11. She has anxiety and suffers with abdominal bloating. We have tried all types of medicines and now have turned try a natural remedy, Chinese Medicine. Not sure where to start. In reading I feel that we need to start with number iii Stress (Liver and Gall Bladder Disorder), would I be on the right track. We are open to suggestions.
    Many thanks

    22 October, 2013
  • Jan Ball

    I have a dear female friend (75 years old) who suffers the most severe headaches – she has been told that it is from Arthritus in the neck and head – she has been put onto morphine by the pain specialist but this doesnt help for long . I was wondering if acupuncture might give her the relief she is seeking ! she has all sorts of tests and x rays etc ….

    Regards Jan Ball

    24 November, 2013
  • sharna jenkins

    Hi I found this article very interesting. I have been suffering from daily headaches for a year now with no relief or answers. I also suffer digestion problems, burning in my neck and severe muscle aches. All serious disease has been ruled out but this has over taken my life. How do I find a good chinese herbalist and do you think I could benefit? Thank you.

    21 December, 2013
  • Andrea Farnworth

    Hi i have had neck problems all my life as well as migraines and motion sickness. I thought my headaches would be stress (liver and gallbladder ) but i have no gallbladder. I am 50 and also have trouble sleeping and seem to feel hot all the time.Get tired easily . Have tried acupuncture but only helps for a while . Eyes always seem to be aching but had them checked and i dont need glasses. Have tried alot of different therapies but nothing helps. Hopefully you can advise what will help

    5 December, 2016