Acupuncture as a Headache and Migraine Treatment

Does This Alternative Therapy Really Work?

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Can Acupuncture Help My Headache?. Jon Feingersh/Getty Images

Acupuncture is a popular intervention for chronic pain, especially headaches. With that, the science behind it and the actual usefulness of it as a therapy is controversial. Let's take a closer look at this complementary intervention that is gaining more and more popularity.

What is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is an alternative therapy that was developed initially as a Chinese medical practice to revert patients back to their state of equilibrium, prior to their illness manifestation.

The actual procedure entails stimulating various points on the body using a number of techniques -- the most common one being a thin, solid, metal needle that penetrates the skin and is manipulated either by the acupuncturist or through electrical stimulation.

Does Acupuncture Work for Headaches?

It's hard to say. The research is conflicting and not super convincing. For example, one 2009 review examined two large trials that compared using acupuncture to treat acute headaches to either no treatment or to routine care. Both found that acupuncture was beneficial up to 3 months in reducing the number of headache days. There was no data provided on whether acupuncture reduced the number of headaches after 3 months.

On the contrary, a 2013 review study in the The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in 2013 examined 5 studies that compared real acupuncture versus sham acupuncture (not real) in the treatment of tension-type headaches. The results showed no difference between the real versus sham acupuncture in terms of reducing headache days.

The authors did note in sub-group analysis ( which is a deeper look into the studies) that certain factors may explain why there was no difference found between the real and sham acupuncture.

These factors include:

  • mode of acupuncture stimulation (i.e. manual versus electrical)
  • duration of needle retention
  • frequency of treatment

Basically these quality-related factors could potentially explain why some studies show acupuncture is effective whereas others do not -- and likewise, why some people in real life swear by the benefits of acupuncture and others are more doubtful.

In terms of preventing migraines, the scientific evidence appears a bit more supportive of acupuncture's effectiveness -- although, experts still question the placebo effect.

In addition, some studies show that acupuncture could be slightly more effective in preventing migraines than a migraine preventive medication. As an added bonus, acupuncture is not associated with the side effects that some migraine medications have -- still, don't be surprised if your neurologist

What Does This Mean for You as a Headache or Migraine Sufferer?

This means that there is simply not enough scientific evidence out there to support acupuncture as a definitively beneficial headache and migraine therapy.

But that does not mean you cannot try it (its safe) and of course, continue acupuncture, if it works for you.

  Remember, headache and migraine treatment is individualized, so what works for you, may not work for others.

That being said, please discuss all treatment decisions with your doctor. It may be that a headache or migraine medication, along with an alternative therapy like acupuncture ends up being a healthy regimen for you. As always, be proactive in your health care.

Sources:

Burke, A., Upchurch, D.M., Dye, C., & Chyu L. (2006). Acupuncture use in the United States: findings from the National Health Interview Survey. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Sep;12(7):639-48.

Endres, H.G., et al. (2007). Acupuncture for tension-type headache: a multicentre, sham-controlled, patient-and observer-blinded, randomised trial. The Journal of Headache and Pain, Oct;8(5):306-14.

Hao, X.A., Xue, C.C., Dong, L., & Zheng, Z. (2013). Factors associated with conflicting findings on acupuncture for tension-type headache: qualitative and quantitative analyses. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Apr;19(4):285-97.

https://nccih.nih.gov/health/acupuncture. Accessed Feb 21st 2015.

Jena, S., Becker-Witt, C., Brinkhaus, B., Selim, D., & Willich, S.N. (2004). Effectiveness of acupuncture treatment for headache - the Acupuncture in Routine Care Study (ARC-Headache). Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies, 9 (Suppl):17.

Linde, K.,  et al. (2009). Acupuncture for tension-type headache. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews,(1):CD007587.

Linde, K., et al. (2009). Acupuncture for migraine prophylaxis. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (1):CD001218.

Melchart, D., et al. (2005). Acupuncture in patients with tension-type headache - randomised controlled trial. British Medical Journal, 331(7513):376–82.

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