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An Alternate Approach to Liver-Related Headaches

Although Western medicine may not clearly link the two, headaches can be related to your liver’s health. If a doctor’s prescription has little effect on your head pain, a different tactic may be in order.

As one of the most common symptoms associated with any number of ailments, most people have had a headache at some point in their life. When occurring with liver disease, a headache can indicate any number of different imbalances in the body. Depending on the location and characteristics of the headache, different treatment approaches may be helpful.

Since headaches can signal a serious condition such as an aneurysm, meningitis or brain tumor, it is best that a physician evaluate any new, severe, high fever-related or unusual pain in the head. Western medical doctors typically evaluate headaches by categories such as: migraine, cluster, stress, tension, vascular, dehydration and sinus. While these categorical approaches are very useful and can lead to quick treatment and relief, their use is limited. For headaches that have been evaluated by, but cannot be relieved by Western medicine, alternative approaches may help reduce the pain of some liver-related headaches.

By differentiating between the specifics of pain and its accompanying symptoms, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) serves as a useful guide to distinguish between headache types. Known as pattern differentiation, each diagnosed imbalance inherently suggests a route for improvement. By aiming for balancing the causative disharmony, TCM has been known for centuries to help those suffering from headaches.

Before a TCM practitioner formulates a treatment approach, some of the differentiating factors of a headache needing evaluation include:

· Location – Where in the head is the pain?
· Type of pain and severity – Is it dull and persistent or sharp and occasional?
· Relationship to emotion – Do strong emotions precede the pain?
· Temperature – Does the head feel particularly hot or cold when the headache surfaces?
· Aggravators and alleviators – What makes the pain feel better or worse?

TCM Headache Location and Descriptions
According to TCM theory, the seven most common headache locations and their common associations are:

1. Vertex – [Top of the head.] Because the liver channel’s internal branch reaches the top of the head, the most frequent cause of a vertex headache is related to a liver imbalance. If this headache has a dull character and improves with rest, then it is due to a deficient imbalance. If this headache is sharp and does not improve with rest, then it is likely due to liver energy rising upwards.

2. Temporal – [On the side of the head, next to the eyes.] This area of the head is traversed by the gallbladder channel, the complementary partner to the liver. A headache in this location is typically sharp and throbbing, and is indicative of liver energy flaring upward.

3. Parietal – [On the side of the head, above the ears.] This area of the head is traversed by the gallbladder channel, the complementary partner to the liver. A headache in this location is typically sharp and throbbing, and is indicative of liver energy flaring upward.

4. Occipital – [The back of the head, just above the neck.] Chronic headaches in the rear of the head are likely due to a kidney energy deficiency, while acute occipital headaches are often related to an external pathogen, such as the common cold.

5. Frontal – [On the forehead, above the eyes.] Headaches above the eyes are usually related to a gastrointestinal imbalance. If the pain is dull, it is likely a weakness of the stomach and spleen, while a sharp pain here typically indicates heat in the stomach. In TCM, a weakness of the stomach often allows dampness or phlegm to build-up, which can cause a heavy, fuzzy sensation in the forehead area.

6. Behind the eyes – A frequent migraine headache location, this location is usually tied to a liver imbalance. Dull pain behind the eyes is due to a weakness of the liver and, if sharp and severe, liver energy rising upward is the culprit.

7. Whole head – [Unable to pinpoint a specific location.] Chronic headaches with an empty feeling around the entire head are usually due to a deficiency of the kidney energy. Acute, severe and sharp whole head pain is often related to the invasion of an external pathogen, like a cold or flu.

According to TCM, three headache locations are typically associated with a liver imbalance. These liver-related locations are:

1. Vertex
2. Side of the head (temporal or parietal)
3. Behind the eyes

Some of the conditions that could manifest a liver-related headache include stress, fatigue, hepatitis, high blood pressure, gallbladder disease, excessive use of the eyes, toxic overload, cirrhosis and fatty liver disease.

Excess and Deficient
TCM separates headaches into two general categories: excessive and deficient. Experienced as pain, the diminished flow of energy and blood within the head is characteristic of both excessive and deficient headaches.

An excess headache is caused by an excess of energy, heat and/or blood in the upper body resulting in head congestion. Though an excess headache could be caused by traumatic injury, more commonly it is caused by an oversupply of energy in the upper body. This oversupply is typically vented as heat, which rises upward to the head. Things that provoke heat rising are anger, frustration, stress, or ingesting alcohol or spicy foods.

Deficiency headaches occur when the head is not adequately nourished by blood or energy. Typically chronic, deficient headaches occur more frequently in women. This gender bias is likely due to the menstrual cycle. During menstruation, blood is directed to the lower part of the body which leaves less available for circulation in the head. Deficient headaches are often accompanied by fatigue.

A TCM practitioner will have specific methods to balance the liver’s energetics depending on the patient’s unique presentation. However, the majority of modern practitioners rely on the safest technique – harmonization. Unless a person exhibits a very strong orientation toward either a deficient or excessive condition, most practitioners rely on this harmonizing approach. By simultaneously strengthening that which is weakened and calming that which has become excessive, the harmonizing approach is balanced on its own.

Sho-saiko-to, is one of the most cherished liver harmonizing formulas in TCM. Consisting of herbs to tonify weakness typical of liver ailments while using other herbs to eliminate liver toxicity and congestion, Sho-saiko-to can benefit many liver-related headaches. Since this specific formulation directs the herbs’ properties to the liver and gallbladder channels, it is capable of harmonizing many imbalances present in these locations. While Sho-saiko-to may not be powerful enough in any one extreme to help every person, it certainly can benefit a great number of headache sufferers immune to Western medicine’s repertoire.

Headaches can be understood and described by different medical systems, subsequently enlisting different kinds of treatments. While certain therapeutic approaches work miracles for some people, others may find the relief they are seeking from a different system of healthcare. Western medicine is not to be discounted in the treatment of head pain – their evaluation and treatment can be life-saving. However, if your headaches are not dangerous and don’t respond to conventional medical treatment, consider an alternate approach for finding relief. In some models, such as TCM, you can actually help restore a healthy balance to your liver – and consequently cause your liver-related headache to diminish.

Maciocia, Giovanni, The Practice of Chinese Medicine, Churchill Livingstone, New York, NY, 1994., Headache, Cyber Legend Ltd., 2007., Herbs for Headache, Shen’s Herbal Products, 2007., The Dual Concept Massage Approach to Headaches, Nicole Cutler, L.Ac., Natural Wellness, 2007.

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About the Author

Nicole Cutler, L.Ac., MTCM, Dipl. Ac. (NCCAOM)®

Nicole Cutler, L.Ac., MTCM is a long time advocate of integrating perspectives on health. With a Bachelor's degree in Neuroscience from the University of Rochester and a Master's degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine from Five Branches Institute, Nicole has been a licensed acupuncturist since 2000. She has gathered acupuncture licenses in the states of California and New York, is a certified specialist with the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association, has earned diplomat status with the National Commission of Chinese and Oriental Medicine in Acupuncture and Chinese Herbology and is a member of the Society for Integrative Oncology. In addition to her acupuncture practice that focuses on stress and pain relief, digestion, immunity and oncology, Nicole contributes to the integration of healthcare by writing articles for professional massage therapists and people living with liver disease.

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