Getting to the Point: Acupuncture for Migraine Relief


Cindy Kuzma

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The newest therapy to treat migraine headache may also be one of the oldest. Dating back to 100 B.C., acupuncture is an ancient Chinese practice of stimulating pressure points. But it's shown promise as one element of a multidisciplinary treatment plan for fighting migraines in modern medical research.

Doctors aren't sure why the therapy works, but studies suggest it can help as many as half of people with migraines. Some research even finds it more effective than medication for warding off future migraines. Read on to find out if acupuncture may be right for you.

From Alternative to Common Practice

Acupuncture is considered a complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) treatment. This means it has been widely used without backing by standard scientific evidence. However, solid evidence-based data supporting acupuncture has been growing.

One published research review compiled all the available studies of acupuncture for preventing migraine. The authors found 22 trials with almost 4,500 participants. Those who received acupuncture had fewer migraines and fewer side effects than patients who took preventive medications.

In addition, a study published in the journal Headache adds to the evidence that acupuncture can stop migraines in progress. Patients who received the treatment reported pain relief within four hours.

How Does It Work?

The traditional theory behind the treatment holds that certain diseases result from imbalances in the body's energy system, or qi (pronounced "chi"). Acupuncture stimulates specific points along meridians, the pathways on which qi flows. Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine believe that this restores equilibrium.

Most types of acupuncture use needles inserted by hand at these points. For migraine, sites include those on the ear.

Some studies of acupuncture compare the treatment to medications or other proven therapies. However, other studies compare traditional techniques to a procedure called "sham" acupuncture. This involves placing needles at points that aren't traditional pressure points, or pricking but not penetrating the skin.

Often sham acupuncture seems as effective as traditional acupuncture. This leads researchers to question whether it's the treatment itself or the one-on-one time with a caregiver that leads to acupuncture's beneficial effects. Symptom improvement related to nonspecific physiologic effects of needling is another possible mechanismOther experts have alternate theories for its effectiveness. For instance, acupuncture may stimulate areas of the brain that naturally overcome pain.

Researchers have begun using brain imaging to pinpoint how acupuncture works for migraine and other conditions. Already they've found that the brains of people with chronic pain respond differently to acupuncture—a clue that could eventually reveal the mechanism behind its effects.

Try It for Yourself

Chronic migraines can be debilitating, and they often don't respond to traditional treatments. The National Headache Foundation now recommends acupuncture as an alternative therapy for migraines. Consider it if medications don't help your condition, or if you don't want to take them.

Experts believe that a short course of treatment can help make headaches less frequent and less severe. For instance, 12 sessions during a three-month period may be enough. Talk with your doctor about how to incorporate acupuncture into your treatment plan. He or she may also be able to recommend a practitioner with the proper training and experience. 

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Mar 2, 2016

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Medical References

  1. Linde K, et al. Acupuncture for Migraine Prophylaxis (Review). The Cochrane Library. 2009;4.
  2. Ying L, et al. Acupuncture for Treating Acute Attacks of Migraine: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Headache. 2009;49(6);805-16.
  3. Allais G, et al. Ear Acupuncture in the Treatment of Migraine Attacks: A Randomized Trial on the Efficacy of Appropriate Versus Inappropriate Acupoints. Neurological Sciences. 2011;32(1):S173-5.
  4. Guirgus-Blake J. Effectiveness of Acupuncture for Migraine Prophylaxis. American Family Physician. 2010;81(1):29-30.
  5. Wanga L, et al. Efficacy of Acupuncture for Migraine Prophylaxis: A Single-blinded, Double-dummy, Randomized Controlled Trial. Pain. 2011;152(8):1864-71. 
  6. Wang S and Young WB. Needling the Pain and Comforting the Brain: Acupuncture in the Treatment of Chronic Migraine. Cephalalgia. 2011;31(15):1507-9.
  7. Nicholson RA, et al. Nonpharmacologic Treatments for Migraine and Tension-type Headache: How to Choose and When to Use. Current Treatment Options in Neurology. 2011;13(1):28-40.
  8. Acupuncture: In Depth. National Institutes of Health. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
  9. Chronic Pain: In Depth. National Institutes of Health. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
  10. ACPA Resource Guide to Chronic Pain Medication & Treatment: 2016 Edition. American Chronic Pain Association.

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