Acupuncture for 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.

Acupuncture in Exeter for migraine: 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.

A large review funded by the National Institute for Health & Care Research in 2017, concluded that acupuncture is better than usual care for pain from chronic headaches.

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.

Please do call me to discuss your situation or to arrange an appointment. Below you can read the results of some of the research which has been undertaken into acupuncture for headaches and migraine. The trials vary in quality, but systematic reviews and randomised controlled trials are generally considered to provide the highest quality evidence. If you would like to read more about evidence quality, I would refer you to the British Acupuncture Council’s description of the evidence pyramid.

Acupuncture helps Migraine

Acupuncture helps migraine. Chinese researchers studying whether acupuncture helps migraine, have performed a meta-analysis of trials, to compare acupuncture with both botox and topiramate. They looked at 15 randomised controlled trials covering 2545 patients.

Analysis showed that acupuncture and topiramate were most effective in reduction of monthly headache and migraine days, with botox following closely behind. Acupuncture though, resulted in the fewest treatment-induced adverse events. Topiramate caused the most adverse events and consequently the highest rate of dropouts.

(Topiramate, acupuncture, and BoNT-A for chronic migraine: a network meta-analysis. Acta Neurologica Scandinavica, 3 January 2021.)

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.)