Acupuncture

Acupuncture for the treatment of migraine headaches: an introduction

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, although 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 10-30 minutes while the person relaxes. Many people do not feel the insertion of the needles, or the insertion may cause as 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

Research on acupuncture 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 patients in the study were also given rizatriptan (brand name: Maxalt). The group that received traditional acupuncture saw a significant 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 an oral medication (flunarizine, which is not available in the U.S.) for six months of treatment. While both acupuncture and the oral treatment reduced the number of migraine attacks, only the group that received acupuncture rated their pain intensity had decreased. The acupuncture group also had significantly less side effects than the group who received the oral medication.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:

  • Compared to no treatment, acupuncture was associated with a moderate reduction in migraine frequency
  • Compared to sham 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, although the effect wasn’t sustained; acupuncture was associated with significantly less side effects and patients were less likely to quit due to those side effects4

Possible side effects of acupuncture

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 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

Caution about acupuncture for migraines

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 pacemaker.1

Women who are pregnant should consult with their doctor about the risks and benefits of using acupuncture. Some types or certain points of acupuncture may stimulate labor.1

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As always, the best source for advice on treating migraine is your own migraine specialist. These descriptions of natural remedies are provided only for informational purposes. You should begin no medication or supplement without first checking with your physician.

Written by: Emily Downward | Last review date: May 2018
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