Acupuncture for Headaches and Migraines

The pain that headache and migraine sufferers endure can impact every aspect of their lives. Acupuncture can offer powerful relief without the side effects that prescription and over-the-counter drugs can cause. Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine have been used to relieve Headaches and Migraines, as well as their underlying causes, for thousands of years and is a widely accepted form of treatment for headaches in our society. There are acupuncturists that specialize in the treatment of headaches and migraines and can help you manage your pain with acupuncture and Chinese herbs alone, or as part of a comprehensive treatment program.

Diagnosis with Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese Medicine does not recognize migraines and recurring headaches as one particular syndrome. Instead, it aims to treat the specific symptoms that are unique to each individual using a variety of of techniques such as acupuncture, Chinese herbs, tui-na massage, and energetic exercises to restore imbalances found in the body. Therefore, your diagnosis and treatment will depend on a number of variables: Is the headache behind your eyes and temples, or is it located more on the top of your head? When do your headaches occur (i.e. night, morning, after eating)? Do you find that a cold compress or a dark room can alleviate some of the pain? Do you describe the pain as dull and throbbing, or sharp and piercing?

How Acupuncture Works

These questions will help create a clear picture on which your practitioners can create a treatment plan specifically for you. The basic foundation for Oriental medicine is that there is a life energy flowing through the body which is termed Qi (pronounced chee). This energy flows through the body on channels known as meridians that connect all of our major organs. According to Chinese medical theory, illness arises when the cyclical flow of Qi in the meridians becomes unbalanced Acupuncture is the stimulation of specific points located near or on the surface of the skin which have the ability to alter various biochemical and physiological conditions in order to achieve the desired effect.

The Acupuncture Treatment

Acupuncture points to treat headaches are located all over the body. During the acupuncture treatment, tiny needles will be placed along your legs, arms, shoulders, and perhaps even your big toe!
There seems to be little sensitivity to the insertion of acupuncture needles. They are so thin that several acupuncture needles can go into the middle of a hypodermic needle. Occasionally, there is a brief moment of discomfort as the needle penetrates the skin, but once the needles are in place, most people relax and even fall asleep for the duration of the treatment.
The length, number and frequency of treatments will vary. Typical treatments last from five to 30 minutes, with the patient being treated one or two times a week. Some symptoms are relieved after the first treatment, while more severe or chronic ailments often require multiple treatments.

Studies on Acupuncture and Headaches

Since the early seventies, studies around the globe have suggested that acupuncture is an effective treatment for migraines and headaches. Recent studies show extremely positive results:
In a case study, published in the June 2003 Issue of Medical Acupuncture, doctors found that acupuncture resulted in the resolution or reduction in the frequency and severity of cluster headaches, and a decrease or discontinuation of medications. It was concluded that Acupuncture can be used to provide sustained relief from cluster headaches and to stimulate adrenal cortisol to aid in discontinuing corticosteroids.
A clinical observation, published in a 2002 edition of the Journal of Traditional Chinese Medicine, of 50 patient presenting with various types of headaches were treated with scalp acupuncture. The results of this study showed that 98% of patients treated with scalp acupuncture experienced no headaches or only occasional, mild headaches in the six months following care.
In a study published in the November 1999 issue of Cephalalgia, scientists evaluated the effectiveness of acupuncture in the treatment of migraines and recurrent headaches by systematically reviewing 22 randomized controlled trials. A total of 1,042 patients were examined. It was found that headache and migraine sufferers experienced significantly more relief from acupuncture than patients who were administered “sham” acupuncture.



Patients with Tension Headaches benefit from Acupuncture

By Michael Devitt  from Acupuncture today volume 6, number 11.

While tension headache usually aren’t as debilitating as migraine headaches, they occur with much greater frequency; according to the National Institutes of Health, they are the most common type of headache experienced in the U.S. They also have a tendency to recur, especially when a person is under stress. Patients who suffer from tension headaches often repot feeling as if their head is being squeezed in a vice, with tightness and pressure around the forehead, the temples, or the back of the head and neck. They may last as little as 30 minutes, or may linger with a person for days at a time.

The exact cause of tension headaches remains unclear. Traditionally, they have been attributed to muscle tension of spasms of the head, scalp, face or jaw, although changes in brain chemistry are also considered a contributing factor. Typically, tension headaches are treated with over-the-counter medications such as aspirin or ibuprofen; in sever cases, antidepressants or muscle relaxants may be used. However, these medications often fail to address the cause of the headache, and may not always be effective.

In the past few decades, acupuncture has been used to treat a variety of headache types, especially tension headaches. A study published in the Aug.13isue of the British Medical Journal suggests that acupuncture can be a powerful instrument in relieving tension  type headaches, and that it produces effects comparable to those seen in more traditional forms of care.

In this randomized, controlled trial, researchers in Germany recruited 270 men and women ages 18 to 65, all of whom suffered from tension-type headaches at leas 8 days per month in the previous 3 months and in the baseline period, and had experienced symptoms for at least the past 12 months. Participants were randomized into a true acupuncture group (comprised of 132 patients), a minimal acupuncture group (63 patients), or a control group (75 patients).

In both the acupuncture and minimal acupuncture groups, treatment consisted of twelve, 30-minutes sessions delivered over 8 weeks, with two session in each of the first 4 weeks, followed by one weekly session in the remaining 4 weeks. In the true acupuncture group, all patients were needled bilaterally at three “basic” points (unless explicit reasons for not doing so were giver), with additional points selected on an individual basis, and a maximum of 25 needles inserted per session. Practitioners delivering acupuncture were instructed to achieve the Qi sensation if possible, and to stimulate needles manually at least once per session. In the minimal acupuncture group, at least five out of 10 predefined, distant nonacupuncture points were needles bilaterally and superficially; the needles were not stimulated, and Qi was not achieved. Patients in the control group did not receive any prophylactic treatment for a 12-week period after randomization, but did receive true acupuncture at the end of the study period.

In addition to acupuncture, patients in all three groups were allowed to treat acute headaches “as needed.” Treatment was documented in a headache diary. Subjects also tracked the frequency and severity of headaches experienced during baseline, the 12 weeks after being randomized, and weeks 21 to24 after randomization. To measure the long term effects of acupuncture, the patients filled out a pain questionnaire before treatment, after 12 weeks, and after 24 weeks.

Results: “Compared with the waiting list control group,” the researchers wrote, “patients receiving acupuncture or minimal acupuncture fared significantly better for most secondary outcome measures.” For example, in the 4 weeks following treatment, patients in the acupuncture group reported suffering an average of 7.2 fewer days of headaches compared to the baseline period. This figure was nearly identical to those treated with minimal acupuncture (6.6 days), but significantly better than patients in the control group (1.5 fewer days of headaches).


A randomized, controlled trial of acupuncture for chronic daily headache.

Coeytaux RR, Kaufman JS, Kaptchuk TJ, Chen W, Miller WC, Cal lahan LF, Mann JD.

Background.-Approximately 4% of adults experience headaches nearly every day. Nonpharmacologic interventions for frequent headaches may be appropriate because medical management alone is often ineffective. Objective.-To assess the efficacy of acupuncture as an adjunct to medical management for chronic daily headache (CDH). Methods.-We conducted a randomized, controlled trial of 74 patients with CDH that compared medical management provided by neurologists to medical management plus 10 acupuncture treatments. Primary outcome measures were daily pain severity and headache-related quality of life (QoL). Results.-Patients who received only medical management did not demonstrate improvement in any of the standardized measures. Daily pain severity scores trended downward but did not differ between treatment groups (P= .60). Relative to medical management only, medical management plus acupuncture was associated with an improvement of 3.0 points (95% CI, 1.0 to 4.9) on the Headache Impact Test and an increase of 8 or more points on the role limitations due to physical problems, social functioning, and general mental health domains of the Short Form 36 Health Survey. Patients who received acupuncture were 3.7 times more likely (CI, 1.7 to 8.1) to report less suffering from headaches at 6 weeks (absolute risk reduction 46%; number needed to treat 2). Conclusion.-Headache-specialty medical management alone was not associated with improved clinical outcomes among our study population. Supplementing medical management with acupuncture, however, resulted in improvements in health-related QoL and the perception by patients that they suffered less from headaches. (Headache 2005;45:1113-1123).

PMID: 16178942 [PubMed – in process