Acupuncture is a component of traditional Chinese medicine. It involves inserting very thin needles into pressure points on your body.
The medical community’s research and opinion on acupuncture is mixed. Some feel that doesn't work better than placebo (or 'sham' acupuncture), but studies have found that acupuncture can give relief to people that experience chronic headache pain.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has endorsed acupuncture as a promising treatment for pain since 1979.
Acupuncture benefits for headaches
Acupuncture seeks to restore the flow of positive energy throughout your body.
It also claims to remove negative energy that is causing you pain. From a modern medical perspective, acupuncture stimulates various systems of your body. This may trigger a healing response.
Acupuncture needles are inserted into different pressure points, depending on your symptoms. These needle points are usually near nerves in your body. The needle stimulates the nerves to release hormones, such as endorphins, that trigger a response from your body. This immune and circulation system stimulation is what proponents of acupuncture claim relieve headache.
Acupuncture studies in headache have concentrated almost entirely on the prevention of headache rather than acute treatment. A Cochrane systematic review first published in 2001 analysed 16 studies involving 1151 patients and concluded that ‘the existing evidence supports the value of acupuncture for the treatment of idiopathic headaches’, but called for further large-scale studies. Large, randomised controlled clinical trials involving several thousand patients have now been conducted, funded by German health insurance companies. These studies have compared acupuncture with standard treatment (drugs and advice given by physicians) and demonstrate persistent and clinically relevant benefits under real-life conditions and equivalence to specialist drug management.
However, no convincing evidence of superiority to ‘sham’ acupuncture has been shown for headache. To skeptics, this suggests that ‘acupuncture doesn’t work’ (i.e. ‘it is no better than placebo’). To supporters of acupuncture, it suggests that while the studies show that it may not matter quite so much how the acupuncture is done, i.e. where the needles are placed or how deeply, acupuncture is much better than no treatment and equivalent to conventional treatment options, with considerably fewer side-effects.
Acupuncture benefits for migraine
Of course, migraine is not just a headache.
A systematic review of 22 clinical trials involving nearly 5000 people found there is evidence that acupuncture reduces the frequency of headache in individuals with migraine, and that the effect may be similar to that observed with preventive medications like topiramate or beta blockers.
However, most of the migraine acupuncture research is measuring headache only; there is little information on other symptoms. Evidence indicates that benefits are mild, but will if acupuncture works for you then you should experience a reduction in severity, and maybe a few less migraine attacks per month, and the benefit will last for about 6 months.
Safety and recommended treatment
Acupuncture is extremely safe if delivered by adequately trained practitioners. The most frequent side-effects are mild and include:
- minor bruising or bleeding, usually on needle withdrawal
- worsening of existing symptoms which usually only temporary
- drowsiness, relaxation, or euphoria
- pain at the needling site
You should seek out a registered practitioner of acupuncture or Chinese medicine - use the AACMA's Find a Practioner tool www.acupuncture.org.au/find-a-practitioner to find an acupuncturist near you.
The American Migraine Foundation recommends at least six sessions of acupuncture for the best benefit.