Headaches & Migraine


Headaches are a particular specialism of mine. 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.

Model showing the acupuncture meridians of the head, which are important in acupuncture treatment for headaches and migraine.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. More recently, the prestigious Cochrane Collaboration has supported the use of acupuncture to treat tension headaches. For migraine, Cochrane says acupuncture compares favourably with drug treatment, citing fewer adverse effects and greater likelihood of responding.

Take a look at the British Acupuncture Council’s one minute video on migraine treatment.

You can also read in the prestigious journal Neurology Today, an account of how two American neurology professors make use of acupuncture to treat headaches. One says, “I can tell you that it’s not controversial within our neurology department. Everybody embraces it and has been able to see the value in it.”

Treating Headaches

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 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. I will ask you about the location of the pain (eg forehead, temples, back), its nature (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).

We will cover any medication you have tried and any other treatment to date. We will examine 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. There will usually be some lifestyle recommendations to help you as well.

Regarding migraine specifically, the charity Migraine Action has in the past given its “Best Complementary Therapist for Treatment of Migraine” award, to a traditional acupuncturist.

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.

Migraine Prevention

Migraine prevention. A review of 19 randomised controlled trials covering over 3600 patients, shows acupuncture is more effective for migraine prevention than propranolol. The meta-analysis by authors at Chengdu University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, looked at trials in which acupuncture or propranolol was compared to sham acupuncture, placebo, waiting list control, or usual care. The analysis showed acupuncture had a significant advantage over the drug in reducing migraine frequency over a four week period. Acupuncture was also associated with fewer adverse events.

(Acupuncture versus propranolol in migraine prophylaxis: an indirect treatment comparison meta-analysis. Journal of Neurology, 21 August 2019.)

Acupuncture helps Migraine

Research from China: Exeter acupuncture helps migraine. A large Chinese systematic review concludes acupuncture helps migraine, with respect to both prevention and treatment. The meta-analysis included 62 trials covering over 4900 patients. Acupuncture was superior to sham acupuncture, standard medication and no treatment. It was also associated with lower pain scores than medication, up to three months after treatment. Acupuncture also enhanced quality of life compared with medication.

Fourteen studies (over 1200 patients) demonstrated that acupuncture was associated with fewer adverse events compared with medication.

(The Effect of Acupuncture on the Quality of Life in Patients with Migraine: A Systematic Review & Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in Pharmacology, 26 October 2018.)

Acupuncture and Headaches

Research from Brazil: acupuncture and headaches. A team in Brazil studying acupuncture and headaches, has shown in a small trial that acupuncture can improve the effect of drug treatment. A total of 34 female patients aged 18 to 60, attending the Federal University of Maranhão’s hospital clinic, were randomised to receive either true acupuncture or sham acupuncture. The latter comprised non-insertive “needling”. Acupuncture was given twice a week for eight weeks. Both groups continued to take their prescribed pain medication.

Compared with the sham group, the true acupuncture group achieved significantly better control of their headaches in several respects, including number of headaches, pain intensity, quantity of medication used, and quality of life. The researchers conclude that acupuncture can be considered an auxiliary treatment for chronic headache.

(Effectiveness of acupuncture as auxiliary treatment on chronic headache. Journal of Acupuncture & Meridian Studies, 27 July 2018.)

Acupuncture for Menstrual Migraine

Research from Canada: acupuncture for menstrual migraine. Canadian researchers undertaking a randomised pilot study of acupuncture for menstrual migraine, have shown that acupuncture and acupressure could be safe options for its prevention. Eighteen women aged 22 to 52, were allocated to one of three groups: true acupuncture, acupressure and control acupuncture (using acupuncture points which the team did not anticipate would have any effect on migraine). The study lasted seven months, plus a three month follow-up. Treatment was given three times per month for three months.

Both true acupuncture and acupressure were significantly more effective than control, in reducing the number of menstrual migraine days, as well as reducing peak pain. No significant differences were observed between groups during follow-up.

(Comparison of the Prophylactic Effect Between Acupuncture and Acupressure on Menstrual Migraine: Results of a Pilot Study. Journal of Acupuncture & Meridian Studies, 11 April 2018.)