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Acupuncture for Alternative Migraine Treatment

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: April 2023

Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine that involves the insertion of thin needles at specific points on the body. It is most often used to reduce or relieve pain, but it may be used for many other conditions or for general well-being. Some people with migraine find that acupuncture can help relieve their symptoms or help prevent migraine attacks.

In traditional Chinese medicine, the energy flow or life force, known as qi or chi (pronounced "chee") flows through the body in meridians, or pathways. By applying needles at specific points on these meridians, it is believed that the body’s natural energy flow will be rebalanced and symptoms of disease can be relieved.1

During an acupuncture treatment, several needles are placed on various points of the body and left in place for 10 to 30 minutes while the person relaxes. Many people do not feel the insertion of the needles, or the insertion may cause a tingling or temporary discomfort.1

Acupuncture for migraine relief

While traditional Chinese medicine believes that the chi or energy flow is improved with acupuncture, many Western medicine proponents believe that it stimulates the body's natural painkillers (endorphins), increases blood flow, and stimulates nerves, muscles, and tissues.1

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How does acupuncture work for migraine?

Acupuncture has been studied in clinical research in people with migraine. One study compared acupuncture to a mock acupuncture (using needles on random points, not the standard Chinese medicine points). All people in the study were also given rizatriptan (Maxalt®). The group that received traditional acupuncture saw a large improvement in their migraine symptoms compared to those who received just rizatriptan or rizatriptan and mock acupuncture.2

Other studies have looked at the use of acupuncture to prevent migraine attacks. One Italian study from 2002 evaluated acupuncture against the oral medicine flunarizine (which is not available in the United States) for 6 months of treatment. Both acupuncture and the oral treatment reduced the number of migraine attacks. But only the group that received acupuncture rated their pain intensity had decreased. The acupuncture group also had many fewer side effects than the group who received the oral medicine.3

A meta-analysis (a study that searches through recently published literature to review research trials) published in 2016 evaluated if acupuncture was as effective or more effective than other preventive treatments. The researchers evaluated 22 trials that included nearly 5,000 participants. Their findings were:4

  • Compared to no treatment, acupuncture was associated with a moderate reduction in migraine frequency.
  • Compared to mock acupuncture (using needles on random points), acupuncture provided a small but significant reduction in migraine frequency.
  • Compared to preventive medicine, acupuncture reduced migraine frequency more, but the effect wasn't sustained. Acupuncture was linked with many fewer side effects, and people were less likely to quit due to those side effects.

What are the possible side effects?

Always make sure you receive acupuncture treatment from a licensed, qualified practitioner. The risks of acupuncture are generally low, but common side effects of acupuncture include:1

  • Minor soreness
  • Bleeding or bruising at needle sites

Some people may be at greater risk for side effects, including those with a bleeding disorder.1

These are not all the possible side effects of acupuncture. Talk to your doctor about what to expect when receiving acupuncture. You also should call your doctor if you have any changes that concern you when receiving acupuncture.

Other things to know

In some forms of acupuncture, mild electrical stimulation is attached to the needles. People with pacemakers should not use this form of acupuncture as it may interfere with their pacemakers.1

People who are pregnant should consult with their doctor about the risks and benefits of using acupuncture. While acupuncture can be safe during pregnancy, this treatment should be performed by a skilled practitioner who has experience treating pregnant people. Some types or certain points of acupuncture may stimulate preterm labor.1

As always, the best source for advice on treating migraine is your own migraine specialist. Before beginning treatment for migraine, tell your doctor about all your health conditions and any other drugs, vitamins, or supplements you take. This includes over-the-counter drugs