Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine in which doctors insert disposable stainless steel needles into specific points on the body. Individuals can use acupuncture to replace standard treatments or to use it with them.
Migraine relief is one reason people seek out acupuncturists. According to a 2016 Cochrane review, around 50% of visitors who see an acupuncturist say they have reduced their reliance on pain medication after treatment. There is some evidence that acupuncture can reduce or even prevent the frequency of migraine headaches. People who use acupuncture in conjunction with other treatments have the highest chance of success.
This article looks at acupuncture for migraines. It examines the benefits, risks, general guidelines, and when someone should speak to a doctor.
Acupuncture is a form of traditional Chinese medicine that involves placing needles on specific areas of the skin. The idea is to change the flow of energy through the body to create balance and harmony. Other effects acupuncturists say is produced include:
- Increase blood circulation
- helps the body release pain relieving chemicals like endorphins
- Relaxation of the muscles
Several studies suggest that acupuncture can help manage pain, including headaches and migraines.
Some benefits of acupuncture for migraines and headaches are:
- Headache Prevention: A growing body of research suggests that acupuncture can help prevent migraines or reduce the incidence of migraines. It can be more effective than popular headache relievers, including prescription migraine medications.
- Savings measures: Some migraine therapies are expensive and insurance may not cover all of the costs. Acupuncture can help lower the cost of chronic migraine treatment, and some insurance plans can cover them.
- Less side effects: With migraine medication, unpleasant side effects can occur or illnesses occur that make standard medication unsafe. Acupuncture can be a viable alternative.
Like all medical treatments, acupuncture carries some risks, including:
- Acupuncture Needle Injuries: An unclean acupuncture needle can spread disease and infection. If an acupuncturist inserts the needle incorrectly, it can injure the skin and lead to infection. It’s worth noting that modern acupuncturists don’t reuse needles.
- Incorrect diagnosis: Not all headaches are migraine headaches. While most headaches are not severe or are emergency, headaches can sometimes warn of an underlying medical condition. People who replace medical care with acupuncture may not receive adequate diagnosis and treatment.
- Short-term side effects: Older research from 2010 suggests that around 10% of people report mild, short-term side effects after acupuncture. These include fatigue, headaches, nausea, and similar symptoms.
To get the most out of acupuncture, try the following:
- Talk to a doctor before trying acupuncture. In some cases, a doctor can refer a person to a trusted acupuncturist.
- Choose a licensed acupuncturist. Before attending a session, read reviews and ask the acupuncturist about hygiene practices and how they minimize the risk of side effects.
- Keep a log of headache symptoms. This can help determine if and how well acupuncture is working.
- Seek medical attention along with acupuncture. Unless the acupuncturist is also a doctor who has attended medical school, they cannot treat diseases. Avoid acupuncturists who say they can diagnose medical conditions or who encourage individuals to bypass medical care.
People can find licensed acupuncturists through the National Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine Certification Commission website.
Research on acupuncture and migraines has primarily focused on acupuncture as a means of preventing migraines – not as a way to start treating them. Several studies suggest that acupuncture may be a viable treatment.
A 2016 Cochrane review compared 22 studies on acupuncture for migraines. Some studies compared acupuncture with no treatment, while others compared acupuncture and fake acupuncture or acupuncture and medication.
Researchers found that acupuncture had benefits in all three scenarios. Acupuncture outperformed fake acupuncture, no other treatment and standard migraine treatment.
Three months after acupuncture, headache incidence decreased by at least half in 57% of acupuncture recipients and 46% taking medication for migraine prophylaxis. After six months, 59% of acupuncture recipients were able to reduce their headaches by at least half, compared with 54% of people taking medication to prevent migraines.
A previous 2012 randomized controlled trial came to similar conclusions. In the study, 480 patients received either one of three types of acupuncture, including electrical acupuncture, or fake acupuncture.
The acupuncture groups reported slight improvements in their headache frequency 5 to 8 weeks after starting treatment. In weeks 13-16, all acupuncture groups reported significant improvements compared to the bogus acupuncture recipients.
A 2017 randomized clinical trial suggests that acupuncture could offer long-term benefits in preventing migraines. The researchers followed 249 people with a history of migraine headaches with no aura for 24 weeks. Participants either received real acupuncture, fake acupuncture, or entered a waiting list.
According to the participants’ headache diaries, real acupuncture reduced the frequency and severity of migraines. At the end of the study, the frequency of migraine headaches decreased by 3.2 in the acupuncture group, by 2.1 in the sham acupuncture group and by 1.4 in the waiting list group.
The results suggest that acupuncture can help treat migraines. However, the mock group also experienced a reduction in symptoms, suggesting a placebo effect.
People should speak to a doctor if they develop a new headache or a change in their usual headache pattern. Not all headaches are harmless and it is important to make an accurate diagnosis.
Even if headache medication or acupuncture do not relieve or worsen symptoms, people should see their doctor.
Migraine headaches can cause painful symptoms that make daily life difficult. A growing body of research shows that acupuncture can help people manage and reduce their symptoms.
People should consider seeing a migraine specialist, especially if medication or acupuncture doesn’t work. The right combination of interventions can help someone find relief from their symptoms.
Although acupuncture can be part of a person’s treatment plan, multiple treatments may be required over a period of time.