Category Archives: Headaches & Migraine
In this short article, I shall discuss acupuncture treatment for headaches and migraine. Although I will refer below just to headaches, references should be taken to include migraines. More than ten million people in the UK experience regular headaches, and the condition accounts for 1 in 25 GP consultations.
In 2012, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) issued updated advice to doctors on the treatment of headaches. For tension headaches, acupuncture is recommended as the treatment of choice. For migraine, acupuncture is also suggested where the usual drugs are either ineffective or unsuitable (due for example to patient preferences, interference with contraception, or the risk of adverse reactions). More recently, the prestigious Cochrane Collaboration has supported the use of acupuncture to treat tension headaches.
Take a look at the British Acupuncture Council’s one minute video on migraine treatment.
Headaches in my experience are generally very responsive to acupuncture, and I always find them interesting complaints to treat. I begin by finding out from you all about the nature of your headaches. Often they will have been going on for quite a while, and you’ll be readily able to answer questions about their characteristics. You may or may not have a diagnosis from your doctor, but one of my jobs is to formulate a Chinese medical diagnosis. To facilitate this, I will ask you about such things as the location of the pain (eg forehead, temples, back), the nature of the pain (eg dull, heavy, throbbing), any accompanying symptoms (eg nausea, visual disturbance), any trigger factors (eg stress, weather, tiredness, tight shoulders), and timing (eg time of day, weekdays, weekends, premenstrually, even a seasonal surge). I will also ask about any medication you have tried and about any other treatment to date. As usual, we will go on to cover your health and wellbeing in a wider sense, to see whether there is anything else which I might connect with your headaches.
I will usually offer treatment weekly for a set period, or twice per week initially if your headaches are particularly severe and frequent. I might ask you to keep a simple headache diary so that as the weeks go by, we can measure your progress, and there will usually be some lifestyle recommendations to help you aswell.
Regarding migraine specifically, Migraine Action in 2010 gave its “Best Complementary Therapist for Treatment of Migraine” award, to a traditional acupuncturist, and continues to recommend acupuncture as an option for patients.
Elsewhere on my website, you will find more information on what to expect from a consultation in general, but I hope the above has been helpful with regard to acupuncture treatment for headaches. Below, you can also read about some of the scientific research which has been performed on acupuncture for headaches and migraine.
Researchers in China have shown that acupuncture gives a long-term reduction in migraine frequency, compared with sham or no treatment. A total of 249 participants, aged 18 to 65, who experienced migraine without aura between two and eight times per month, were randomised to acupuncture, sham or waiting list groups. The acupuncture groups had sessions five days per week for four weeks. Patients were followed up for a further 20 weeks after the end of treatment. Treatment was given at outpatient clinics across three locations.
Compared with sham needling, true acupuncture was significantly more effective at reducing migraines at all time points. Sham treatment did not differ significantly from waiting list control. At 16 weeks after the start of the trial, mean monthly migraine frequencies had decreased by 3.2 in the acupuncture group, 2.1 in the sham group and 1.4 in the waiting list group.
(The Long-term Effect of Acupuncture for Migraine Prophylaxis: A Randomized Clinical Trial. Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine, April 2017.)
Preliminary research from the USA suggests that auricular (ear) acupuncture delivered in the emergency department may be useful for the treatment of acute migraine pain in children. In a prospective cohort study, 19 children aged 8 to 18, presenting with acute migraine, were given a single auricular acupuncture treatment to a maximum of three acupoints located along two auricular migraine lines. Fifteen minutes after treatment, all subjects reported improvement or resolution of their migraine, with a clinically and statistically significant mean reduction in pain of 7 points on a 10 point pain scale. There were no known adverse effects.
(Auricular Acupuncture for the Treatment of Pediatric Migraines in the Emergency Department. Pediatric Emergency Care, 2 May 2016.)
The international team of authors of a Cochrane systematic review have concluded that a course of at least six acupuncture treatments can be a valuable option for people with frequent tension headaches. They surveyed 12 trials which included 2349 patients. They drew attention to two large trials which found that acupuncture in addition to medication, resulted in 48% of patients’ headache frequency dropping by more than half; in contrast, just 17% of patients who took medication alone, experienced such an improvement.
When a comparison was made with sham acupuncture, headache frequency halved in 52% of patients receiving true acupuncture, compared with only 43% of patients receiving sham acupuncture. One high quality trial with about 400 participants, showed the benefits of true acupuncture were still present 6 months after treatment.
(Acupuncture for the prevention of tension-type headache. Cochrane Database Systematic Review, 19 April 2016.)
A small study by Italian researchers shows that acupuncture can be used to interrupt an episode of cluster headaches. Four patients were treated either with acupuncture alone, or acupuncture plus the drug verapamil. Acupuncture was given with diminishing frequency for a twelve week period, and according to traditional Chinese medicine principles. All patients experienced an interruption to their cluster headaches.
(Acupuncture in cluster headache: four cases and review of the literature. Neurology Science, 28 May 2014.)