Treat Your Headache With This Single Acupuncture Point
David Chu, MD
Almost half of the adult global population experienced a headache in the past year. The lifelong prevalence of headaches is 96%. It’s no surprise that headaches rank in the top ten reasons why patients go see their primary care doctor.
Tension-Type Headaches can often progress in severity and duration, thus causing increased amounts of impairment and disability. Seeking professional help from a Certified Headache Specialist would be the next step to develop both an acute and preventative plan of care. Prescription medications, medical marijuana (depending on your state’s medical marijuana laws), and conservative treatments such as physical therapy, chiropractic care, and acupuncture are all viable treatment options.
The most common type of headache that people suffer from is an Episodic Tension-Type Headache. It is characterized as mild to moderate in severity, bilateral, and pressure-like in quality and typically does not cause significant disability. Most people who suffer from this type of headache do not actually go see their doctor and can effectively self-treat their headache. Common forms of self-treatment include non-prescription pharmaceuticals such as Advil or Tylenol, stress-reducing physical activities such as light exercise or massage therapy, or dietary changes including fluid and electrolyte replacement. They can also try a single point acupuncture treatment, the next time they experience this type of headache.
One of the most effective acupuncture points in our bodies is LI-4 (Large Intestine 4), also known as He Gu or “Union Valley.” LI-4 is located on the back of the hand, between the thumb and the index finger. LI-4 is commonly used to treat all different types of pain such as headaches, neck and back pain, abdominal pain, and constipation.
There are a few ways to stimulate LI-4. Using your opposite side thumb and index finger, apply moderate pressure (it should not be painful) to LI-4 for one to two minutes. Alternatively, I recommend purchasing and applying acupuncture seeds to LI-4 bilaterally. This will also help mark the correct spot, give you a visual reminder, and provide a slightly more stimulating sensation to LI-4. Applying the correct amount of pressure will produce a dull achy sensation, known as Qi (‘Chee’). If you do use acupuncture seeds, I would not recommend leaving them in place for more than a day, as excessive pressure on the seed could cause skin breakdown and an entry point for developing a skin infection. Also, stimulating LI-4 is contra-indicated in pregnant women, as it a common acupuncture point that is used to induce labor.
Now here is the next question. How does this actually work?
In the book Characters of Wisdom: Taoist Tales of the Acupuncture Points, Deborah Katz and Harrison Xinshi Tu describe LI-4, 合谷 (He Gu) as "The point along the large intestine channel where energy clears what is no longer needed with great vitality. Union Valley denotes a place where more than one valley converges, which implies ample resource and momentum, so nothing remains stagnant. The lush imagery of a valley conveys that this is actually a very nourishing point, which helps us to receive our resources, which we are often unable to imagine when we are physically or mentally holding onto something."
As you can see, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture from a western medicine standpoint may be viewed as more of an art form, as this description is more like poetry, rather than a logical explanation.
The most likely explanation for the effectiveness of LI-4 is what’s called the Gate Theory of Pain. The Gate Theory is essentially how one function of a nerve can inhibit another function of a nerve. For example, if you have a toothache and then bang a hammer on your finger, you will no longer feel the toothache, at least momentarily. Also, many of the key acupuncture points are sensitive pressure points, such as GB-21, located in the mid belly of the upper trapezius muscle (think Vulcan Nerve Pinch). The stimulation of these sensitive acupuncture points release natural endorphins, endogenous neuropeptides that bind to mu-opioid receptors, which ultimately block the transmission of pain in our brains and can provide an overall sense of well-being.
As someone who also suffers from chronic headaches and neck pain, acupuncture, specifically at LI-4, is a convenient acupuncture point that I have found to alleviate mild headaches. Although it is not a cure, acupuncture can be a safe and effective alternative to Western headache pain medicine that can have harmful side effects and potentially promote medication dependency. The next time you have a headache, try this acupuncture treatment at LI-4 and see for yourself if it offers relief as it has for me and many others.