Dr. Niushen Zhang discusses acupuncture for migraine treatment

For people living with migraine, acupuncture treatment can be an effective form of preventive treatment and pain management. In a recent Facebook Live, Dr. Niushen Zhang discussed five things you should know to determine if acupuncture is right for you. Dr. Zhang is the Director of the Headache Fellowship Program at Stanford University and trained in acupuncture at the Academy of Pain Research in San Francisco.


1. How does acupuncture work?

In Chinese culture, acupuncture is believed to regulate and balance the flow of energy, or “chi” through the body. The Chinese philosophy follows the idea that needling is a way to add chi where there’s a deficiency, or to remove chi where there’s congestion.

Another way to understand acupuncture is through the Western physiology perspective,

“where micro-injury from needling can lead to increased blood flow and also healing,” said Dr. Zhang. Studies have shown that acupuncture can change certain levels of endorphins, chemicals released by the body that can decrease pain.

2. What are the side effects?

According to Dr. Zhang, acupuncture is extremely safe. “Some common potential side effects can include bruising, bleeding and soreness. And in some people, the needling can cause lightheadedness and fainting, but that’s exactly why acupuncture should be performed when a person is lying down,” said Dr. Zhang.

There are certain groups of people who need to consult their medical care professionals before undergoing acupuncture, including pregnant women, people with bleeding disorders or who are taking blood thinners, and people with pacemakers.

3. Who should get acupuncture treatment?

“The simple answer is anyone who is open-minded about it, who has discussed it with their doctor, and has the time and resources to do it,” said Dr. Zhang. In her opinion, believing in the treatment can also contribute to its effectiveness and results. To maximize acupuncture’s success, Dr. Zhang recommends two sessions per week for about eight to 10 sessions.

In order to find a reputable acupuncturist, Dr. Zhang recommends looking at their credentials first. Dr. Zhang also recommends looking through online reviews or asking people you trust. Patients of any age can benefit from acupuncture, including children. The placebo effect typically works well for children, and with a pediatrician’s approval, acupuncture can be performed effectively.

4. What should you expect during a session?

First, ensure that you are wearing comfortable, loose clothing. Pants should be able to be rolled to the knee. Sessions typically last around one hour, beginning with a physical examination and discussion of your medical history. The remainder of the session is the treatment, in which the acupuncturist inserts needles into different points of the body.

“Once the needles start to go in, the acupuncturist may twist or thrust the needle, until you feel a warm or tingling sensation, which we call ‘deqi,’” said Dr. Zhang. Acupuncturists use between five and 20 needles, and they stay in for 20 to 45 minutes. Depending on where a needle is inserted, it may feel painful or tingle, however, in some areas, patients will feel nothing at all.

5. How will acupuncture affect my migraine?

Growing evidence supports that acupuncture is effective in preventing episodic migraine. Additionally, acupuncture has fewer side effects compared to oral medications. When considering acupuncture, Dr. Zhang believes it is important for patients to ask themselves, how serious is my disease? People who have more frequent and severe headaches will require more sessions than those with less serious conditions. Dr. Zhang believes that even in more severe cases, acupuncture is effective in treating issues like sleep, anxiety and muscle tightness.

Dr. Zhang recommends two sessions per week maximum to avoid overstimulation. Although acupuncture has the potential to be more effective than taking medications, Dr. Zhang does not advise patients to discontinue additional treatments without consulting a doctor.

To find more information about natural or alternative migraine treatment options, visit the American Migraine Foundation website. Browse our doctor-verified resource library, explore toolkits and read articles and advice from the nation’s leading headache specialists.