Q&A On Acupuncture Treatment For Migraines With Acupuncturist Stephen West

Today I am talking to acupuncturist Stephen West who has been getting good results treating migraine symptoms with acupuncture at his practices in Horsham and Tunbridge Wells.

Stephen graduated from the International College of Oriental Medicine in 2004 where he now also teaches part-time. Since qualifying as an acupuncturist Stephen has been working in private practice and treats a wide range of conditions. Stephen is a member of the Acupuncture Society and is also a qualified massage practitioner.

1. What was your career before you became an acupuncturist?

I was quite young when I first started studying acupuncture way back in 2000. I was twenty years old at the time and had my twenty-first birthday during my first year as an acupuncture student so I didn’t have a lot of work experience before that time. However, I had also completed a GNVQ in Leisure and Tourism and was working as a supervisor in a restaurant before I joined the course. I had wanted to be an acupuncturist since I was sixteen years old, but I was of course way too young at the time.

2. What first got you interested in acupuncture at such a young age?

I have always been heavily into the Martial Arts since a young boy and during my early teens, I became familiar with acupuncture points from a few Martial Arts books I was reading at the time. My teacher also showed me some of the uses of specific points for Martial Arts purposes and I was just fascinated. About a year or two later when I was sixteen I picked up a shoulder injury form training and decided to give acupuncture a go. I was delighted that it worked very well and since that time I just had to know more about it.

3. I hear you have been getting good results treating migraines with acupuncture. Can you tell us a bit about how acupuncture can help this condition?

Yes, there, of course, can be quite a few causes for a migraine headache and it depends mainly on the cause of the condition as to how you would treat it. However, in the majority of cases and from a Chinese medicine point of view, migraines often relate to a disturbance in the gallbladder and three heater channel, known as Shao Yang. When the Shao Yang channel is affected the migraine will usually present with unilateral head pain and visual disturbances. In other people, the migraine is primarily arising from heat in the liver. When this is the cause then they often can be an intense pain on the vertex of the head. When a migraine presents with a stiff neck and or pain in the occipital region of the head then the bladder channel or gallbladder channel can be involved. By correctly diagnosing the cause we can then choose the appropriate points to help clear the affected channel and restore harmony and flow in the body.

4. What methods do you use to diagnose a migraine?

When we are trying to establish the cause of a migraine I first interview the patient to ask them how they experience the condition. I am interested to know things like is their pain with a migraine (sometimes there is not), if so, whereabouts do they feel the pain. Do they also have pain in other parts of the body or only the head? Are there visual disturbances, if so, what kind of disturbances are they experiencing? How often do the migraines occur and what is the typical duration? Also, I am often interested to know if there is a common time of day when they seem to strike or if they are at random times and are there any triggers that they are aware of. After questioning the patient I then also check the muscles of the back and neck for any tension and tight muscles. From here I then use Chinese tongue and pulse diagnosis.

5. Do you find that there are common triggers for migraines in the patients that you see?

Yes, there often can be. Most commonly, I come across people who are triggered by things like stress, dehydration and exhaustion. There is also a commonality in people who experience a lot of anger and or frustration that has built up over time. In Chinese medicine, these emotions cause an imbalance in the liver and gallbladder, which can then lead to a disturbance in these channel pathways that reach the head.

6. What is the success rate of treating migraines with acupuncture?

Often quite high. I have not yet treated someone who did not get any relief at all. For some, the migraine symptoms can drop considerably once they start having acupuncture. For others, it can take some time before they feel some relief. In most cases, besides working directly with the migraine symptoms, I often also need to balance the emotions, particularly the emotions that affect the wood element and therefore have a direct effect on the liver and gallbladder. As I mentioned before, these emotions are usually anger and/or frustration.

7. How many treatments do people seem to need for migraines?

It depends on the person and why they are experiencing the migraine. For some it can just be a few sessions, for others, it can be an ongoing process and a way to manage the condition. Typically, if the migraines are brought on by stress then a few sessions can often right the issue. If there are other causes then the initial treatments can help to bring the symptoms down, then they benefit from coming for acupuncture treatment periodically to help keep the symptoms at bay.

Thank you to Stephen for taking the time for this interview, please feel free to leave him a comment below. If you would like to find out more about Stephen then you can visit his website at professional-acupuncture.com or you can join Stephen on Facebook or LinkedIn. You can also read his article on migraines here.

Learning Needle Technique – Best Practices and The Finer Points

a person inserting an acupuncture needleLearning how to efficiently and safely needle an acupuncture point is a paramount skill for an acupuncturist to learn. Besides being able to insert the needle into the right point in a way that causes as little discomfort as possible, it is also crucial that the student learns how to effectively stimulate the acupoint in a way that will bring about the desired effects for the treatment.

To the lay person with little knowledge of acupuncture, it looks like that an acupuncturist is merely inserting a needle into the skin. However, there is far more going on that just this. When needling, the practitioner needs to concentrate and be aware of different aspects of needle insertion to bring about an effective treatment.

Safety and Hygiene

The first consideration is hygiene. This is an extremely important as an acupuncturist, of course, does not want to cause an infection or contaminate their patient in any way. Nowadays, most if not all practitioners in the West use disposable needles. These acupuncture needles come pre-packaged and are one-time use only. Once the needle has been used and withdrawn, it is disposed of in a dedicated sharps disposal bin.

However, before needing, the acupuncturist must also be mindful first to prepare the patient and expose the parts of the body that require needling before treatment. The practitioner will then wash their hands and begin to locate and needle the acupuncture points.

Once the needle has been removed from its packaging, the acupuncture student needs to be mindful not to touch the shaft of the needle and only hold the needle by the handle. For longer needles, this can require some skill and practice as the needles are very thin and flexible and will, therefore, bend easily under pressure, especially when holding the needle at a distance by the handle. The focus is important to insert the needle smoothly without bending.


When it comes to needling an acupuncture point, the intention of the practitioner is one of the most overlooked areas. Having a clear, focused intention on what you are doing and a one-pointed single-mindedness of the outcome you want to achieve while inserting the needles is an essential part of the treatment as any other.

This is something that is hard to measure. However, experienced acupuncturists all over the world attest to the greater results achieved from an acupuncture treatment when they are focused and have a clear intention of the outcome they want to achieve.

To read more about the power of intention while needling a patient, please see this interesting article from Acupuncture Today.

Needle Technique

There are a number of different techniques a practitioner can use when needling a patient. Which method they use depends on the aim of their treatment and the desired outcome.

Generally speaking, when needling an acupoint, the practitioner is looking to either stimulate (also known as tonify) the point or disperse (also known as sedate) the point. This is based on the theory of the balance of the energetics. If there is a deficiency, then the practitioner will aim to tonify the point to promote nourishment and movement. However, if there is an excess condition, then they will often (but not always) be looking to sedate or disperse the point to bring about a balance of the energetics.

When applying tonification or sedation techniques, one common way to apply this it to twist the needle upon insertion. For tonification the practitioner will turn the needle clockwise; for sedation, the direction will be anticlockwise.

Another common sedation technique used by acupuncturists is to insert the needle and then begin to withdraw and insert the needle in rapid succession, with the stronger intention on the withdrawal motion. This technique helps to disperse any blockages and is commonly used for pain symptoms (known as a bi syndrome) where the nature of the pain is that of an excess condition.

Learning Point Location For Acupuncture

locating acupuncture pointsWhen studying acupuncture, point location is one of the most important classes as a deep understanding of the points used in acupuncture will form a solid foundation for effective treatment later on in practice.

The point location classes are far more than just learning the locations of the points. During these classes, we are also taught to feel for the points, examine the channel pathways and understand the uses and functions of the different points.

Locating the Acupuncture Points

Each of the acupuncture points are located along one of the twelve main meridians of the body. Each point is in a very specific location and a specific distance from the adjacent points along the meridian pathway. Typically, many of the points also have anatomical landmarks in or around the area of the points, which also help with locating. However, not all of them do have a distinguishable landmark. In these cases, we need to rely on the measurement from nearby landmarks to bring us as close as possible to the point. Once we are in the area, we then need to feel for the point.

Measuring For The Points

When locating the acupuncture points, a very precise measurement is used called a cun. A cun is a Chinese unit of measure that equates to the width of the person’s thumb at the base of the nail. So, for example, if we are are measuring on a patient, we consider the cun measurement to be the width of the patient’s thumb, not our own. This is because their body shape will most likely be different from ours.

To further clarify this, when measuring from the lateral epicondyle of the humerus to the wrist crease, the measurement is 12 cun. When locating point Th-6 (Three Heater/Triple Burner 6) for example, the point is located on the posterior aspect of the forearm; three cun from the wrist crease midway between the ulna and the radius.

For more information on cun measurements, click here.

Here is a good video explaining how to use the cun measurements to locate the acupuncture points.

Feeling For The Points

When locating the points, having a good degree of sensitivity is also important. When we are in the area of the point, we are taught to then feel for the precise location. Interestingly enough, the acupoints do indeed have a very slight and almost imperceptible depression at the site of the point. When running one’s finger over the point, one can often feel an ever so slight dragging feeling under the finger.

According to Chinese medical theory, the more open the point feels at the time of locating the point, the more the point has a need to be needled.

Point Functions And Energetics

One of the aspects of the point location classes that people most enjoy learning is gaining an understanding of the functions and the energetics of the points. Each point has a different nature and can, therefore, bring about different effects within the body. For example, the antique points are a collection of points which describe the movement of energy at the different points along the channel and can therefore, have a different effect in thy type of movement that they create within the meridian.

Understanding how and why different points and combinations of points are used is where they start to come to life. There are weekly tests to ensure we keep up to speed with our learning and understanding of the acupuncture points, their locations and their functions and how the points may be used in a treatment.

Yin And Yang Theory – Definition And Application To Acupuncture

a yin and yang symbolYin and Yang is a concept in Chinese philosophy, which describes how contrary or opposite forces that are found all around us are actually complementary.

In the natural world, opposing forces such as fire and water or light and dark are actually interconnected and interdependent. The philosophy views everything in relation to its whole and explains every relationship between different objects.

How is Yin And Yang Applied In Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture?

Yin and Yang theory is an underlying concept used in every part of Chinese Medical theory as it relates to everything in existence, including the patient, their symptoms, anatomy and even the treatment approaches.


In acupuncture theory, the body is viewed as an entire organic unity. Depending on their locations and functions, several body parts are categorised into yin and yang accordingly. For instance, the upper body is yang in relation to the lower part of the body, which is the yin. The front part of the body is categorised as yin, while the back is yang. The interior and exterior body parts are also classified into yin and yang respectively.

This gets slightly more complicated when we start to take about the internal structures and substances that are found in the body. For example, organs that have a hollow structure such as the stomach, bladder, gall bladder and colon, to name but a few, are considered yang in relation to the organs that have a more dense nature. As such, organs like the liver, kidneys, spleen and heart are considered to be yin in nature. The heart is a slightly more unusual organ in Chinese medicine theory, as it is considered a yin organ but it is not actually a dense structure like the liver or the kidneys, but is actually a hollow structure. Here is more information on the heart organ in Chinese Medicine.

In Chinese Medical theory, the bodily substances such as the blood, body fluids and essence are considered to be yin, while the Qi, the invisible emotive force that permeates everything in nature and enables movement is considered to be yang. Therefore, the blood, body fluids and essence cannot exist without the yang to enable them to move, whereas these yin substances also give life to and support the Yang energy, so each is interdependent upon each other.

Physiological Application

Traditional Chinese medicine believes that you can only achieve perfect health if the yin and yang are in perfect health. Since the physical form and the overall body functions are balanced dynamically, they depend and restrict each other. For instance, the body can’t function if there is no physical form in place. Likewise, there also needs to be a dynamic movement of the Yang energy to facilitate the nourishment of the body by the various substances within.

Pathological Application

Any disharmony between the two forces results in physiological disorders and illnesses in the body. If this occurs, then it means the two forces are unbalanced and unequal, meaning one force is deficient while the other is in a state of excess, both can result in pathology.

Many factors cause the disharmony between yin and yang, but they are related to all the external influences that cause diseases. The flow of qi throughout the entire body can also cause some disharmony between the two forces. If there is a normal flow of qi, the body functions perfectly resulting in healthy immunity and faster recovery from illnesses. The Deficiency of normal Qi in the body results in disruption of the two forces resulting in disease.

Yin and yang theory has been widely used in traditional Chinese medicine to discover the cause of illnesses and restore the body back to its proper function.

For more information on yin and yang theory and how it is used in Chinese Medicine, here is an interesting video form Dr.Wu.

Acupuncture – A Journey of Self Discovery

yin yang symbolWhen we embark on a journey into the unknown, many emotions can begin to surface. Excitement, wonder and of course a little apprehension too.

For many, acupuncture is a subject that is fascinating and mysterious, a mystical art that seems to have incredible capabilities. But where did it come from and how would one learn such a complex discipline? Often, many people experience great relief from their ailments by using acupuncture, which at first can be both surprising and amazing. This experience can often cause a person to have a curiosity as to how and why it works. Talking to an acupuncture practitioner about Qi and the meridian system and how acupuncture has an effect on the body is certainly a fascinating discussion.

This blog will help you to understand a bit more about acupuncture and if you have the interest to learn this discipline yourself then it will hopefully give you some good pointers as to what you need to consider before you choose to study.

We hope you will enjoy reading this blog and hope you will feel inspired to find out more about this fascinating healing art. If you have not tried acupuncture before then you may want to consider booking a treatment with a local practitioner. You don’t need to wait until you have an ailment as many people also have acupuncture as a preventative form of treatment or just to help them relax and keep them in balance.

Best wishes to you all on your journey and I hope you will find something that fills you with passion if you have not found it already.