Cluster Headaches/Ancient healing wisdom

On May 5th 2017 BBC Breakfast news reported on an item entitled ‘Cluster Headaches’. Apparently, there are approximately 130,000 sufferers in the UK and they are acute, excruciating attacks of pain on one side of the head. Pain described as worse than that experienced by migraine sufferers. One afflicted person describes how the torment is so bad that he deliberately finds a hard surface on which to bang his head, and sometimes knocks himself out to gain relief!

During the footage two statements made by contributors to the programme especially alerted my attention. The first was by a victim who said, “I suffer every spring and every autumn without fail.” The other was made by a researcher working on a study project about the condition at Kings College Hospital, pointing at a picture of the brain she commented, “this is the posterior hypothalamus also known as the internal body clock which we think is linked with cluster headache attacks.”

These comments made me reflect on my knowledge of acupuncture and two of the guiding principles employed in diagnosis and treatment. In Ancient China patients didn’t go for acupuncture treatment when they were ill, they went at the change of season’s to have their energy tuned to the season about to occur. For example, in the spring and summer, the energy is rising and active (Yang). In the autumn and winter, the energy is withdrawing, becoming passive and inward (Yin). This was preventative medicine keeping people in balance with the rhythms of nature. I can guarantee that when the season’s change I will see patients (who are new to Five Element practice), be ill with colds, especially if they work in air-conditioned offices.

For thousands of years acupuncturists have understood that the body has a 24-hour clock. In layman’s terms each organ of the body has a peak two hours period of activity in a 24-hour cycle. For example, the gall bladder is at a peak between 11 pm and 1 am, the liver between 1 am and 3 am. Twelve hours later the organ has a two hours resting period so between 11am and 1pm next day the gall bladder is enjoying, or trying to enjoy a tranquil phase, similarly, the liver between 1pm and 3 pm.

Patient’s who have digestive ill health find it interesting that the stomach and spleen are at their peak between 7 am and 11 am so any food we send down between those hours they break down to the best of their ability and we derive the most nourishment from them. Consequently, between these hours in the evening they are resting and any food they are asked to deal with is not handled effectively and we can suffer symptoms like acid reflux. I don’t know the origin but there is a saying, ‘breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and supper like a pauper’. Chinese medicine has understood this for centuries.

When taking a new patients case history I always ask if their symptoms are worse/better at a particular time of day or night, and likewise during a particular season.

Back to the BBC report, without any shadow of a doubt the fact that the lady always suffers in autumn and spring is significant. The research project would benefit from knowing the principles behind Eastern medicine and the 24-hour body clock. I often come across items in the media that are detailing new medical research, new prescription drugs, new ‘scientific’ study and find myself wishing that western medicine/science would look to the ancient systems of healing and their understanding of what creates health/ill health in an individual and not reinvent the wheel!

The Internal Causes Of Disease

Do you ever wonder why you developed frequent ‘migraines’ in your forties when previously you hardly ever suffered from headaches? Or, why in your thirties you start having ‘asthma’ attacks for the first time?

For over 2000 years Chinese medicine has understood that some physical health problems originate from emotional causes.

Let me explain, the Chinese call this The Seven Internal Causes of Disease. These are the emotions of overthinking, shock, fear, excitation, sadness, oppression and anger. These seven emotions encompass all feelings. For example, anger can include frustration, depression, resentment, irritation, bitterness and rage.

In health it is natural to express emotions as a response to a certain situation. If, however, these emotions are not fully acknowledged and expressed they might become a cause of disease that will impact our biological health. Unlike Western medicine the major organs of the body have an emotional as well as a physical function. Unsurprisingly, the heart is joy, the kidneys vigilance (arousal), the stomach and spleen emotion is thoughtfulness, the liver assertion (surging), and the lungs connection and loss (grief). To illustrate how this may generate physical symptoms, overthinking predominantly affects the stomach and spleen and may cause poor digestive health in a patient.

It is not uncommon when taking a new patient’s case history to reveal that their asthma symptoms which developed in their fifties are as a result of the sudden, unexpected death of a loved one ten years earlier. At the time of loss they didn’t express their grief but kept it bottled inside. Unexpressed emotions don’t vanish into the ether they sit inside us and can become a cause of physical illness.

In summary, not all bodily health problems start at the physical level. The root cause of some issues can be traced back to a pent-up, unresolved feeling that has been inside someone for as little as twelve months to as long a period as forty/fifty years or more. In my experience acupuncturists not infrequently diagnose one of the Seven Internal Causes of Disease as the root cause of their patients bad health.

Pam Everitt
Lic.Ac., BA (Hons), MBAcC

How I Became An Acupuncturist

My patients ask me on a fairly regular basis how I came to be an acupuncturist? So I thought I would share the path that led me to practice this wonderful, wise system of medicine.

My story starts in 1968/69 with a strawberry roan coloured pony called ‘Fudge’ and his owner, my best friend, Beccy. At 8/9 years of age we were pony mad girls and shared many hours with Fudge, taking it in turns to walk and ride. I still remember Fudges’ ejector habits. He took mischievous delight in depositing Beccy and I, unceremoniously, on our backsides during the last canter of the day on her grandparents lawn. Yes, I did say ‘their lawn’, it was a long one!

At 11 years of age Beccy and I went our separate ways due to the 11 plus system. We lost touch over the years, but I always remembered those childhood days as the start of a lifelong love of horses.

Fast forward to November 2001. I had just been made redundant as an Account Manager in a business to business sales environment. I had reached my fourth decade and faced the future with uncertainty. One (auspicious) day the telephone rang, “Hello Pam, it’s Beccy.” My mind rummaged in the deepest, darkest recesses and slowly retrieved the relevant file.nIt had been approximately 20 years since we had last spoken.

A visit was arranged and 20 years of lost time recovered.nDuring this happy encounter Beccy shared her story with the words, “I’m an acupuncturist.” How interesting I thought, ‘what exactly is acupuncture?’ Beccy gave a tantalising description of Five Element acupuncture that intrigued me.

I visited the County Library in the hope that they had books about acupuncture. There were two. I pulled one of them off the shelf. The title fitted my line of enquiry exactly, ‘Is Acupuncture for You?’ That’s what I’m wondering, Professor Worsley, I mused. He was the founder of the first Five Element college in the UK.

Beccy’s words and JR’s book changed my life. I was hooked. I was moved to tears at the beauty of helping ‘dis-eased’ people through the medium of Five Element Acupuncture. So many of J.R’s comments captivated my heart. For the first time in my life I was one hundred per cent sure of what I wanted to do, I had no doubts at all about pursuing a career in acupuncture.

Five Element treatment and diagnosis made so much sense. Of course the macrocosm of nature is within us in microcosm. The seasons of the year and rhythms of nature affect our health and wellbeing. In ancient times they believed we should go to bed when it was dark and rise with the light. This meant long hours of sleep in winter and longer hours of waking in summer. Perhaps if our modern world permitted this today we would see less depression and the condition entitled SAD?

It was with great excitement that I crossed the threshold of The College of Traditional Acupuncture In Leamington Spa to pursue three years of under graduate study. Since that time I have never wavered in my desire to be a Five Element practitioner. In 2013 I completed 2 years of post graduate study with master practitioner Niki Bilton. You never stop learning with this type of medicine, with its emphasis on treating the individual not the labelled illness. For example, I see many people suffering from conditions such as asthma, depression and migraines, but I don’t have a formula (pill) designed for those conditions. I treat the person. We believe emotions can be one of the causes of disease, and sometimes, I diagnose that patient X’s asthma is rooted in emotional causes and does not start and finish at the physical level.

Thank you JR, and Beccy, you transformed my life. Wonderful.

Western Medical Acupuncture – But is it Acupuncture?

As someone schooled in classical ‘Five Element’ acupuncture, I’m particularly concerned about the spread of treatments commonly known as ‘Western Medical Acupuncture’ and ‘Myofascial Trigger Point Acupuncture (also known as ‘dry needling acupuncture’). These are widely practised by doctors, nurses, physiotherapists and midwives within the NHS. They are described as a form of acupuncture, but while the practitioners are medically trained, most have little knowledge of, or training in, the principles which underlie traditional Chinese acupuncture.

Dry needling v. acupuncture

I was originally drawn to acupuncture because it treats the whole person. In the right hands, it is painless and effective – a highly sophisticated form of medicine that is recognised and practised throughout the world.

In traditional Chinese medicine, the symptoms we feel when we are ill, such as a sore throat or a swollen gland, are a sign that the body is out of balance. Acupuncturists aim to correct the imbalance and encourage the body’s natural healing mechanisms. This is done by inserting ultra-fine needles at special points located along channels called ‘meridians’ which carry vital energy, called ‘Qi’, throughout the body.

‘Dry needling’ is a recent development that is used alongside disciplines such as physiotherapy, and within the framework of a Western-style medical diagnosis. Usually billed as a treatment for headaches or muscle pain, it involves inserting a needle into a ‘trigger point’, a tender spot in a tight band of muscle which causes pain when pressed or squeezed. This creates an entirely different needling experience for the patient and bears no resemblance to the feeling created by a traditional acupuncturist. Dry needling does not seek to regulate Qi or address the underlying imbalance that caused the symptoms to arise.

Of course, dry needling has its supporters, and quite a few people claim to have been helped by it. I do not doubt that certain forms of dry needling can be effective – but it isn’t acupuncture as I understand and practise it. And if you are only having dry needling, you’re missing out on most of what a registered acupuncturist has to offer. Let me explain.

The holistic approach

For me, each patient is unique – so while the ailment and the symptoms may be identical, the form of treatment I offer is different in every case.

During the initial consultation, I spend up to an hour taking a complete medical history, carefully building up a picture of the patients’ unique physical and mental constitution. I then carry out a detailed examination of their tongue and pulses (acupuncturists are trained to read six pulses on each wrist, each with up to twenty-eight individual qualities). All this information is vital in helping me decide which points to treat.

Interestingly patients are often surprised that the needles are not always inserted at the spot where they feel the pain or discomfort. This is because energy meridians range throughout the body. For example if you suffer from indigestion, I may decide to treat you by inserting needles in your foot or hand. In dry needling, the needle is always inserted directly into the affected part. It may seem a relatively minor point, but it illustrates a fundamental difference between the two types of treatment.

Treating causes, not symptoms

So does acupuncture offer something more than dry needling? Absolutely. Dry needling may bring temporary relief, but often the pain returns because the underlying cause has not been properly addressed according to traditional acupuncture principles.

It’s worth remembering that a physiotherapist, for example, who wants to train in dry needling may only study for 80 hours: just enough to gain understanding of how to ‘needle the point that hurts’ and perhaps deliver some short-term symptom relief. In contrast, my undergraduate studies alone consisted of 3,500 hours of study.

Let the patient beware

So what is the answer? Many British Acupuncture Council members are calling for changes in the law to make it illegal for dry needlers to call themselves acupuncturists. (Back in in the early 1990s, osteopaths faced a similar threat from rival types of therapy; eventually legislation was brought in to protect the term osteopathy.) In the meantime, patients need to be wary. The description ‘acupuncture’ currently covers both dry needling and traditional Chinese acupuncture, but although there are superficial similarities, the differences between the two types of treatment are vast.

A Good Night’s Sleep

There has been much discussion lately in the media about the role of sleep in maintaining good health. This made me reflect that I see a lot of patients whose main complaint is insomnia. Many have suffered for years without respite, and have received no help from conventional Western medicine.

To highlight the approach of Eastern medicine, insomniacs might find it interesting to see the questions I ask before I make my diagnosis and devise a treatment plan. I won’t explain the rationale behind my questions, because Kidney Yin Deficiency will only make sense to someone with at least three years’ training in acupuncture! However, the questions do show how I try and evaluate the different types of sleep deprivation that patients experience.

  • When you put your head on the pillow, do you go to sleep straight away?
  • If your answer is no, approximately how long are you awake before you nod off? Whilst you are awake, are your thoughts going round and round in your head?
  • Approximately how many times do you wake in the night?
  • Do you wake quite frequently, i.e., more than twice, during the night and go back to sleep quite quickly?
  • Do you always wake at the same time and find you can’t go back to sleep until a certain time has passed?
  • If you have long periods of wakefulness, are you thinking about future-oriented matters?
  • Do you wake from your sleep feeling anxious, having had a disturbing dream, and are hot or sweaty?
  • During the day, is there a time when you find your energy dips for a while, and then picks up later? If the answer is yes, what time does your energy decrease and what time does the increase occur?

There may be additional questions depending on the answers given.

Why not try acupuncture to help you get a good night’s sleep and feel much better about life in general?