Acupuncture for Migraines: What You Need to Know

I’m one of those high-strung people who constantly suffers from stress-related pain. Backaches, tension headaches, muscle pain, joint tenderness and abdominal cramping are an everyday part of my life. When the going gets really tough, I sometimes develop intense migraines that– without some form of treatment– can last days.

I have yet to find one single treatment that knocks out all of these problems, but the tenants of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) have always been beneficial to me. I’ve found that TCM treatments, including acupuncture and acupressure, have always helped to relieve my migraine-related pain and other forms of recurrent discomfort.

If you’re interested in using acupuncture to treat your own migraine symptoms, there are several key points to consider.

1. Talk to your doctor. This isn’t just a recommendation that we health-writers give to appease attorneys. It really is a critical step in seeking treatment for migraines– or, for that matter, any other medical condition. Your health care provider can help to diagnose your migraines to differentiate them from similar problems, such as sinusitis or severe tension headaches. She can also evaluate you for signs of common migraine causes, such as hormonal imbalance and food intolerance. A comprehensive evaluation is essential for guaranteeing a correct diagnosis and a safe treatment.

2. Understand acupuncture. Acupuncture faces a tremendous amount of misunderstanding, both among health care providers and among those receiving the treatment. Traditional healers use acupuncture to stimulate specific points in the body, known as medians, by inserting very thin needles into the skin. In TCM theory, this facilitates the flow of chi, or life-energy, into the appropriate areas of the body, thereby enabling healing and pain relief. TCM theory is neither entirely consistent nor entirely inconsistent with Western medical science. Despite thousands of years of traditional use, it’s not clear if acupuncture really “works” or fails to work for migraines.

3. Know the evidence. Only one Western clinical study has evaluated acupuncture’s efficacy as a migraine treatment. In the study, which was published in the British Medical Journal, adults who experienced migraines more than twice per month were divided into two groups. One group received only conventional treatments for migraines, while the other group received both conventional treatments and regular acupuncture. Those who received acupuncture had fewer headaches, needed less medication, made fewer doctor’s visits and missed fewer work days than the group receiving conventional treatment alone.

4. Know the limitations. Like all treatments, acupuncture does have limitations. The clinical trial examining acupuncture for migraines failed to account for the placebo effect– the patients receiving acupuncture may have experienced improvement simply because they believed that the treatment was working. There’s also no clear evidence that “real” acupuncture works better than “sham” acupuncture, or that it can entirely replace conventional treatments. It’s also critical to understand that acupuncture fails to effectively eliminate underlying problems such as hormonal imbalances.

5. Consider other treatments. TCM practitioners rarely recommend acupuncture as a sole treatment for any condition. Instead, it usually on a holistic view of the patient. Comprehensive TCM treatment may involve acupuncture in combination with medicinal herbs, dietary changes, exercises, meditation and conventional treatments. Of course, always get the go-ahead from your health care provider before you use any of these treatments. Medicinal herbs and radical dietary changes can cause dangerous side effects when used inappropriately.