Updated: Jan 19, 2021
If you are someone who gets migraines or headaches, especially if you get them often, then you know how much of an impact that they can have on your quality of life. It can be difficult, or even impossible, to think or act because of the pain in your head. When the pain comes on, finding relief often becomes the only thing that matters.
I know this first hand; it’s actually why I became an acupuncturist. I started getting migraines when I was 10 years old. I will never forget my first one.
I was taking a standardized test, when all of a sudden, I couldn’t see the little scantron bubbles. They just seemed to disappear when I would look directly at them. I tried reading the problem again, and the same thing occurred – words just vanished when I tried to look directly at them. I was very disoriented, and didn’t understand what was going on. Then…. Then the pain came.
This would occur a couple times a year for the next few years, then once or twice a month for most of my teenage years, and then, by the time I was 18, I was having them multiple times per week.
Medication helped if I caught the migraine early – at the first hint of an aura, BEFORE the pain came. If I caught it then, and took medication, I would still get a headache and be a space case for at least 24 hours, but at least I could somewhat function. If I didn’t catch it early enough, I would be looking at a minimum of 3 hours being completely useless – 10/10 pain, nausea, vomiting, bright streaks of colors distorting my vision… Made working fulltime while also a full time student quite the undertaking…
The medication was incredibly expensive, and as I mentioned only helpful to a certain extent, and I was crumbling apart. I remember sitting in my doctors office bawling because of how much pain I was in, and him just saying to me, “I don’t know what you want me to do.” I pleaded to him that I wanted him to figure out why I was in so much pain all the time, and he just told me that all he could do was prescribe me narcotic pain medications (which I cannot take because of bad reactions to), and ushered me out of the office.
At the time, I could not believe the lack of empathy – now, unfortunately, I know it all to well as I hear daily stories relayed by my patients about how they are treated in doctors offices.
Fast forward through several attempts at trying to figure out and fix my brain on my own, I eventually came to try acupuncture for headaches and migraines. Several acupuncture migraine treatments, home exercises, and a lot of Chinese herbs later, my migraines we greatly reduced, and then eliminated! This was over 15 years ago, and minus a couple migraines that I had while I was pregnant, I have been migraine free this whole time!
After about 6 weeks of acupuncture migraine treatment, and learning about the power of preventative medicine and the incredible capacity our bodies have to heal, I was hooked!
Wondering if Acupuncture can help you with your headaches, migraines, or other types of pain? Claim your free Discovery Session by clicking here!
So instead of going to medical school as I had planned, I earned my Masters in Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine, and have loved every day of it!
Because of my experience with headaches and migraines, it is something that I am passionate about treating. I know what toll it can take on your life, and I know how transformative it is to find something that works and to be able to let go of all of that pain. I have treated thousands of patients with headaches now, and it is still a thrill every single time they come in and say that they had not had a headache since their last treatment!
Because of the clinical evidence of acupuncture for headache treatment, several studies have begun popping up to attempt to quantify its efficacy. Clinical trials of acupuncture are flawed in many ways, but they are still the golden standard to evaluate a medical treatment method, so I think they are still worth looking at.
The following is from a report via McMaster University which looked at some research studies about acupuncture for headache treatment:
Many adults suffering from chronic headaches or migraines are increasingly turning to alternative therapies for pain relief, such as acupuncture (4;5). Despite acupuncture’s popularity, its effectiveness in preventing headache pain has been controversial.
Two systematic reviews aimed to find out more about whether acupuncture can actually help reduce how often people get headaches or migraines. One review included 12 randomized controlled trials with over 2300 adults suffering from frequent tension-type headaches for at least 6 months (6). The other review included 22 randomized controlled trials with just under 5000 adults suffering from 'episodic migraine': all participants reported having migraines for more than one year, less than 15 days per month (7).
The reviews compared the number of headaches experienced by people who used acupuncture to people in control groups who had routine care (treatment of their symptoms only), ‘fake’ acupuncture (needles placed in the wrong places, or not into the skin), and other treatments such as preventative drugs (7), or physiotherapy, massage and exercise (6). Only trials in which the participants had acupuncture every week for at least six weeks were included.
What the research tells us
Can acupuncture reduce the frequency of headaches or migraines? The available evidence suggests that it can, at least in the short-term.
Three months after starting acupuncture treatment, frequent headache or migraine sufferers experienced significantly fewer headache days than those receiving routine care, treatment with 'fake' acupuncture, or treatment with preventative drugs. Both systematic reviews also found that acupuncture was safe and well tolerated. Overall, people receiving acupuncture reported fewer side effects and were less likely to drop out of the studies than those receiving drugs (6;7).
Two, more recent, reviews looking at chronic pain further support the use of acupuncture for the treatment of headaches, as well as other forms of pain such as musculoskeletal and osteoarthritis (8;9). In terms of whether acupuncture is effective both in the short-and long-term, the evidence is more mixed. For instance, older research shows only short-term benefits—at six months—(7), while newer research shows the potential for sustained pain relief—over at least one year (9).
What clinical trials and research studies can’t account for is holistic treatment plans for individuals. I could see 10 patients who give me identical descriptions of their headaches, and treat each of them completely differently. We have to look at the whole person and treat the whole person.
Frequency is also key – some patients need more frequent treatment for a longer period of time – just like different patients take different doses of a medication prescribed by their doctors. In some case I would also assign exercises or stretches to do at home to further support our treatments, or in some more severe cases, refer out to we physical therapist who is well versed in neck and head issues. I might employ diet changes, suggest supplements and or herbs to take for a period of time.
These are all things that cannot be accounted for in a standard clinical trial.
So what does that mean?
That means that even without looking at all of these variables – IT STILL WORKS! 😊
Success of acupuncture for headache treatment was still clinically significant, and I believe that if we were able to employ how acupuncture is actually practiced to those who didn’t not get clinically significant results, then most of them would have gotten better as well.
Other Clinical and Research support:
McMaster University on acupuncture for headache treatment As demonstrated above
"This analysis conclusively demonstrated that acupuncture is superior to sham for low back pain, headache, and osteoarthritis, and improvements seen were similar to that of other widely used non-opiate pain relievers. And the safety profile of acupuncture is excellent"
The American Migraine Foundation recommends trying acupuncture for migraine treatment for at least 6 sessions when conventional treatment has failed.
" In treatment of headaches, the effectiveness of acupuncture can be increased if the acupuncture practitioner identifies, or modifies, the point selection and/or location to identify active points. As the acupuncture practitioner examines the active points, he or she can monitor the treatment's progress by palpating the points while observing and communicating with the patient about whether or not the headache is being reproduced."
"In the previous version of this review, evidence in support of acupuncture for tension-type headache was considered insufficient. Now, with six additional trials, the authors conclude that acupuncture could be a valuable non-pharmacological tool in patients with frequent episodic or chronic tension-type headaches."