Kurrajong Natural Medicine Centre

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Tension-Type Headache: A Chinese Medicine Perspective

What are Tension Headaches?

Patients with tension-type headache suffer from episodes of pain that is typically bilateral, pressing or tightening in quality, of mild to moderate intensity, and which does not worsen with routine physical activity. There is no nausea, but fear of bright light or loud sounds may be present.

Infrequent tension-type headache lasting minutes to days, which occur once per month or less often has limited impact on individuals. If headaches occur on more than one but fewer than 15 days per month, this is classified as frequent episodic tension-type headache. In some patients this can evolve into chronic tension-type headache (on 15 or more days per month).

Tension-type headache should not be confused with migraine, which is characterised by recurrent attacks of mostly one-sided, severe headache, although some patients suffer from both types of headaches. Tension-type headache is the most common type of primary headache and the disability attributable to it is larger worldwide than that due to migraine.


How Does Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) view Tension-type Headache ?

Every year the lives of many people throughout the world are affected by headaches. Tension-type headache is classified as episodic if it occurs on less than 15 days a month and as chronic if it occurs more often. Episodic tension-type headache can be treated with rest and analgesics, while chronic tension-type headache demands a more fundamental treatment.

Tension headaches tend to be associated with negative stress, such as inability to cope with the number of tasks to be completed or other stress factors in one’s life.
They fall into the “internal Causes of Headaches” category in TCM and may be one of several underlying patterns including: Liver Fire, Liver Yang Rising, Liver Wind, Liver Qi Stagnation, and others.

The region on the head where the headache is experienced can provide an experienced TCM doctor with information as to which of the organs and acupuncture channels are affected.

The top of the head relates to the Liver channel and this type of headache is often due to deficient Liver-Blood. This type of headache will improve when lying down and will be dull in nature. Other TCM Patterns that elicit this type of headache are Liver Yang rising, the pain of which will be sharp nature. Additionally there are non Liver related headaches that are due to deficient Qi and Blood.

Headaches that occur on the side(s) of the head correspond to the Gall-Bladder channel and headaches here are most frequently due to Liver Yang, Liver-Fire or Liver-Wind rising. This is a sharp, throbbing headache.

Frontal headaches are due to Liver-Blood deficiency if the pain is dull, or Liver-Yang rising if the pain is sharp and severe.

Tension headaches can start on the back of the head/neck and will worsen by radiating over the top of the head. This is associated with the Bladder channel but will also have elements of Liver pattern involvement.

Tension-headaches are the most common type of headache and studies have shown these types of headaches to respond well to acupuncture and/or Chinese herbs.

It is important however that the pattern(s) causing the headache is clearly identified by a qualified TCM practitioner in order to provide effective treatment. It may be that several patterns are interacting and life-style factors may add to the symptom complex experienced by the patient.

At Kurrajong Natural Medicine Centre our team of highly experienced and qualified practitioners are ready to help. 
Simply call (02) 4573 0784 to discuss what approach is best for your issue.

What You Can Do to Help Yourself

According to the Mayo Clinic, a healthy lifestyle can promote good overall health and help prevent tension-type headaches. Here are the basics:

  • Eat nutritious foods on a regular schedule.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Avoid excess caffeine.
  • Quit smoking.

Stress and tension-type headaches often go hand in hand. To reduce stress, try these simple tips:

  • Simplify your life.
  • Take a break.
  • Breath deeply in and out and count to 10.
  • Think positive thoughts.
  • Don’t worry about things you can’t control.

Tense muscles can trigger tension-type headaches. Apply heat or ice (which ever feels better to you) to relieve tense neck and shoulder muscles.

Massage also can relieve muscle tension — and sometimes headache pain. Gently massage your temples, scalp, neck and shoulders with your fingertips, or gently stretch your neck.

Take time to unwind every day. Try this deep-breathing exercise:

  • Lie down on your back or sit comfortably with your feet flat on the floor; hands in your lap.
  • Imagine yourself in a peaceful place, perhaps a beach or quiet forest. Keep this scene in your mind.
  • Inhale and exhale slowly and deeply for at least 10 minutes.
  • When you’re done, sit quietly for a minute or two.


Linde, K., Allais, G., Brinkhaus, B., Fei, Y., Mehring, M., Shin, B. C., Vickers, A., & White, A. R. (2016). Acupuncture for the prevention of tension-type headache. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews, 4, CD007587. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD007587.pub2

Coeytaux RR, Kaufman JS, Kaptchuk TJ, Chen W, Miller WC, Callahan LF, Mann JD. A randomized, controlled trial of acupuncture for chronic daily headache. Headache. 2005 Oct;45(9):1113-23. doi: 10.1111/j.1526-4610.2005.00235.x. PMID: 16178942.

Marciocia, G. (1994) The Practice of Chinese Medicine: The Treatment of Disease with Acupuncture and Chinese Herbs, Edinburgh: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone.

Tension-type headaches: Self-care measures for relief

YanQing Tong, LiXiang Yu, and Ye Sun (2015) Chinese Herbal Therapy for Chronic Tension-Type Headache. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. https://doi.org/10.1155/2015/208492

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