Headaches that arise in the forehead or surrounding the sinuses are generally due to some sort of phlegm, damp, or other fluid metabolism issue. This would include the nasal discharge associated with the common cold as well.
There are a number of organs that are devoted to some aspect of fluid metabolism in Chinese medicine. The way that the water moves about the body is considered a big deal in Chinese medicine. Anything that compromises the normal fluid metabolism can generate a variety of problems that we call phlegm and damp.
If the sinus headache is associated with the common cold or flu, that is a slightly different animal. But for headaches due to allergies, or aggravated by heavy meals, you’re on the correct page.
Quick Guide – Frontal (sinus and forehead) headache due to:
- Common cold (more chills than fever):
- Formula: Ligusticum Chuanxiong Powder to be Taken with Green Tea (Chuan Xiong Cha Tiao San) [more]
- Flu with fever (more fever than chills):
- Formula: Bupleurum and Kudzu Decoction to Release the Muscle Layer Decoction (Chai Ge Jie Ji Tang) [more]
- Chronic, associated with stuffed nose or allergies (often seasonal):
- Formula: Xanthium Powder (Cang Er Zi San) [more]
- Associated with heavy sensations in the head and body:
- Formula: Notopterygium Conquer Dampness Decoction (Qiang Huo Sheng Shi Tang) [more]
- Arises after meals, perhaps associated with dizziness:
- Formula: Pinellia Atractylodis and Gastrodia Decoction (Ban Xia Bai Zhu Tian Ma Tang) [more]
In Chinese medicine, many upper respiratory viral infections are considered invasions of certain atmospheric conditions. In English we pretty much say the same thing, at least when it comes to the “common cold”. The sense is that cold weather gets into the body and causes problems. Chinese medicine still looks at the problem exactly that way.
There are a few ways in which these outer influences can affect your nose. On the page about headaches in the back of the head, I talked about how these cold, heat, or damp energies can enter through the back of the neck to cause pain in the back of the head. However there’s another theory, probably a little more recent in Chinese medicine’s evolution, that says these pathological influences can also directly enter the lungs. This is roughly the same premise as the so-called “airborne vector” in Western medicine. So, you catch a cold when a virus enters the body through the nose, eyes, or mouth.
It eventually causes problems in the (Chinese concept of the) Lungs and impedes its functions. In Chinese medicine, the Lungs are of course involved with gas exchange, just like Western medicine. But the Lungs are also an important part of the body’s fluid metabolism. As such, whenever something gets into the Lungs that shouldn’t be there (such as heat, cold, damp, wind, etc.) a stuffy nose can ensue.
Allergies would fall into this category as well, though instead of an invasion of “cold” causing chills or “heat” causing fever, allergies are considered an invasion of “wind”. If you think about seasonal allergies, especially in the springtime when there is pollen in the air, the idea that wind is the cause of these reactions is a somewhat reasonable observation.
The Lungs are in charge of distributing water through the body as a vapor. This includes the moistening of the nose as well as keeping the skin moist. However when there are problems in the Lungs, this function of distributing fluids is compromised, and as such they back up all the way up to the nose where it leaks out as a runny nose.
So, while there are a bunch of formulas for the common cold (in fact, there’s a rather important old book with hundreds of formulas called the Shang Han Lun that is devoted to exactly this concern), the formulas on this page assume that the cold or flu will pass on its own. These formulas are focused predominately on the symptoms.
There is one situation mentioned among the formulas at the top of this page that is not due to an invasion of an external pathological factor such as cold, heat, wind or damp.
There is a problem with wind and damp that can arise from within the body rather than being exposed to them in the environment. Wind generated on the inside of the body can cause spasms, tics, tremors, and sensory issues such as dizziness, vertigo, etc. These generally fall under the neurological system according to biomedicine.
Dampness is the outcome of inefficient digestion or a problem with one of the many organs involved with fluid metabolism in Chinese medicine.
These a few different flavors of this dampness all of which have their own unique symptoms.
- humidity where your body feels heavy and there may be some fogginess in your head.
- edema where fluid collects just about anywhere from your face, to your ankles.
- insubstantial phlegm where these fluids get thicker, such as you might find with some squishy lumps in your body. (Lumps need to be looked at by a health care provider!)
- substantial phlegm is that stuff that comes out of your lungs when you cough or go chchchchhhh ptooey! (that “ch” is the Yiddish pronunciation such as in CHanukah.)
There’s actually another ancient saying in Chinese medicine that explains how these bad fluids can get into your nose:
The Earth Element (digestion) creates the dampness,
the Metal Element (Lungs and Large Intestine) store it.
When the dampness collects in the Lungs it can back up into the nose just like with those external weather influences. This gives rise to that sinus headache you’ve been reading about.
Sometimes other organs get involved too such as the (Chinese concept of the) Liver. If the Liver becomes problematic, the outcome can be internal wind. This wind can kick up the dampness or phlegm where it can undermine the functions of the brain (or “Heart” as is sometimes described in Chinese medicine). This can cause headache, dizziness, and nausea.
Fortunately, Pinellia Atractylodis and Gastrodia Decoction (Ban Xia Bai Zhu Tian Ma Tang) [more] is well-designed for exactly this occurrence. The Ban Xia (Pinellia) dries the internal dampness and addresses nausea. The Bai Zhu (Atractylodis) is all about drying dampness and strengthening the digestion to prevent the further creation of the dampness or phlegm. The Tian Ma (Gastrodia) is the key internal wind extinguishing herb in this formula for the dizziness and headache.
Be well, be VERY well.