Acupuncture may offer a non-pharmacological treatment option for people with migraine
By Adelene Jann, MD, LAc
Migraine is a common neurological disorder that affects about 12 percent of the US population, with about 18% of women and 6% of men living with this diagnosis.1 Migraine is described as moderate to severe pain that can be throbbing, concentrated on one side of head, and which may include light and noise sensitivity or nausea or vomiting.2 Patients may use preventative medications to decrease the frequency and severity of their migraine attacks, and/or abortive medications to treat a migraine when it occurs. Some patients may have side effects from medications, and others may find that medications are not helpful. Complementary integrative treatments like acupuncture may be used as an alternative treatment.
How acupuncture works
Acupuncture is a technique that consists of thin needles inserted into the skin in specific parts of the body. These needle sites are called acupuncture points. Acupuncture is used treat a variety of diseases including migraine. Acupuncture as a medical treatment traces back to ancient China more than 3000 years ago and is a based on traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) theory. In TCM theory, a person is healthy when their body is in a balanced state. When there is imbalance in the body, illnesses may develop. The concept of Qi (our vital energy) is central to TCM theory, which believes that when Qi cannot flow through the meridians in our body (specific channels where acupuncture points are located), those blockages invite illness and pain. The goal of acupuncture is to find a pattern that explains why there is imbalance in the body, and bring the body back into balance by placing needles into the points to let Qi flow freely again.3
Acupuncture as a migraine treatment
Research has often focused on evaluating acupuncture as an option for migraine prevention. In 2016, a broad analysis was conducted of the current studies in acupuncture and migraine. It examined the efficacy of true acupuncture compared to sham acupuncture (needles inserted into non-acupuncture points) and compared to commonly prescribed drugs for migraine prevention. The authors concluded that acupuncture should be considered a valid preventative treatment option for migraine patients. It may be helpful for those who do not want to take medication or who experienced side effects from drugs.4 Smaller studies have also shown that acupuncture can be useful as an abortive treatment when a patient is in the midst of a migraine attack.5 However, some still question whether patients’ responses to acupuncture is due to a placebo effect.6 More thorough studies in the future may help clarify this.
The role of acupuncture in the treatment of migraine should be discussed between the patient and the headache specialist. There is minimal risk involved with the procedure, which may include bleeding, infection or bruising. It can take about six to eight sessions to see a decrease in migraine frequency and severity. These sessions can take place from several times a week to every other week. Typically, sessions will last about 30 to 45 minutes. Thin, sterile needles will be inserted into the skin at particular points to prevent or treat a migraine. Depending on the style of acupuncture and the training of the practitioner, the needles may be placed in the arms, legs, back or sometimes the head or face. The needles are left in place for several minutes while the patient relaxes. Some patients may respond well, while others may not notice any improvement. The cost of each session should also be considered: some insurance carriers may cover acupuncture, but others may not. Ultimately, acupuncture may be helpful in controlling migraine, and is worth a try in addition to pharmaceutical options for the prevention of migraine.
- Lipton RB, Bigal ME, Diamond M, Freitag F, Reed ML, Stewart WF; AMPP Advisory Group.. Migraine prevalence, disease burden, and the need for preventive therapy. Neurology. 2007 Jan 30;68(5):343-9.
- Headache Classification Committee of the International Headache Society (IHS).. The International Classification of Headache Disorders, 3rd edition (beta version). Cephalalgia. 2013 Jul;33(9):629-808.
- Da Silva AN. Acupuncture for migraine prevention. Headache. 2015 Mar;55(3):470-3.
- Linde K, Allais G, Brinkhaus B, Fei Y, Mehring M, Vertosick EA, Vickers A, White AR. Acupuncture for the prevention of episodic migraine. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016 Jun 28;(6):CD001218
- Li Y, Liang F, Yang X, Tian X, Yan J, Sun G, Chang X, Tang Y, Ma T, Zhou L, Lan L, Yao W, Zou R. Acupuncture for treating acute attacks of migraine: a randomized controlled trial. Headache. 2009 Jun;49(6):805-16.
- McGeeney BE. Acupuncture is all placebo and here is why. Headache. 2015 Mar;55(3):465-9.