Acupuncture is a treatment method utilized for more than two thousand years for many different symptoms. Being a major part of eastern medicine, acupuncture has recently become more known and available in western countries, with a significant number of qualified practitioners residing in the US. In this article, we will discuss how acupuncture can assist in the treatment of migraines, a potentially debilitating type of headache affecting the quality of life of a large proportion of the population.
Acupuncture and Migraines – What is a Migraine?
A migraine is a specific type of headache that can cause severe throbbing pain, often on one side of the head. Frequently, nausea, vomiting, or sensitivity to light accompanies the headache. Migraines can last for a few hours, or up to several days, and in some cases cause missed work or interference with normal daily activities.
Another presenting symptom of migraines is known as an aura. In some cases, patients describe unusual temporary neurological signs prior to the onset of headaches such as flashing lights, blind spots in the visual field, facial or body tingling, or even difficulty with speech. Certainly, these occurrences can feel frightening, especially prior to the diagnosis of migraine.
In general, the frequency of migraines can vary from person to person, occurring very rarely or on a regular basis. Some people have associated triggers with migraines, noting that certain foods, cyclical hormone changes, or possibly life stressors, tend to increase the frequency of attacks.
Migraine sufferers can try a variety of modalities to address their symptoms. Important to realize, while some patients seem to benefit from pharmaceutical interventions or lifestyle changes, others seek an alternative approach to treatment. Ultimately, acupuncture is an intervention used by trained medical professionals to address migraine signs and symptoms effectively.
What is Acupuncture?
Acupuncture is a treatment modality involving the insertion of very thin, flexible needles into strategic points of the body. Notably, the history of acupuncture is thousands of years old, rooted in traditional Chinese medicine, and is based on the concept of “chi” or “qi” which is the energy flow or life force that pulses through the meridians or pathways, of the body. By inserting acupuncture needles into key points of the body, practitioners work to re-balance energy flow, creating at times profound changes in body symptoms.
Comparatively, in Western medicine, acupuncture includes the concept that acupuncture points are places to stimulate specific nerves or muscles, creating a dynamic response in the body’s pain levels and functioning.
How Does Acupuncture Help Migraines?
There is some clear evidence that acupuncture reduces the incidence of migraines in patients, although the exact mechanism remains somewhat undefined. In essence, we know that acupuncture can stimulate the body by pure mechanics and initiate a cascade of pain-relieving endorphins that in fact can impact pain syndromes. In other cases, acupuncture may provoke a circulatory or immune change that positively impacts migraine pain. Some practitioners believe that it is the direct stimulation of neural pathways that directly works to decrease pain. Overall, more research will help define the exact mechanism of migraine relief.
Usually, when migraines occur due to stress or muscle tension, acupuncture treatment can disrupt the trigger points in muscles creating an aftereffect of muscle relaxation and subsequent decrease in migraine or headache symptoms.
In fact, the safety profile of acupuncture is excellent, with few adverse events reported when a trained practitioner performs the treatment. The practice of acupuncture may offer an important non-drug option for sufferers of migraine pain, potentially leading to a decreased risk of opiate or substance abuse.
Overall, studies show that acupuncture is effective at decreasing the frequency of migraine headaches, and is more tolerated than medications dues to the decreased frequency of known side effects.
In this recent review article, there is a nice introduction to acupuncture and migraines. This article reviews major cited source articles which show the superior results of acupuncture treating migraines.
What Can I Expect During an Acupuncture Session?
In general, a typical acupuncture course of treatment will begin with a thorough evaluation of your symptoms, medical history, and lifestyle. Most practitioners will evaluate the body by inspecting your painful body parts, as well as other areas that may offer helpful information on your health. Additionally, an acupuncturist may want to check your tongue or your pulse. The acupuncturist may also spend time interviewing you about some general body systems like digestion, emotions, or sleep.
A skilled acupuncturist will explain the upcoming session and answer any questions you may have prior to initiating the treatment.
During the treatment, the acupuncturist will insert thin needles into the specifically identified points for your symptoms. Ultimately, most patients tolerate the needle insertion quite well, with little to no discomfort. Typically, there are 5 to 20 needles used in a treatment, inserted at different areas of the body, although not necessarily at the site of pain. Patients may feel a mild aching sensation, deep to the tissue when the needle reaches the proper depth.
Sometimes, needles remain in place for 10-20 minutes, and other times, the acupuncturist intermittently manipulates the needles to optimize treatment. Needle manipulation may include twirling, gently moving, or attaching mild electrical pulses to the needles.
At the end of treatment, the acupuncturist will remove the needles, usually with no discomfort at all.
What About a Session of Acupuncture for Migraines?
In fact, an acupuncture session for migraine will be similar to any other acupuncture session, in that a thorough review of symptoms and history will occur. The patient usually changes into a gown, or loose-fitting clothing, and lays on a treatment table in a position of comfort.
Some of the targeted acupuncture points may be near the face or head, however, others may be at distal points of the body, like the wrist. The exact location of needle insertion will depend on the patient’s presentation and the practitioner’s assessment of the most effective treatment approach.
Usually, the acupuncturist will prescribe several consecutive sessions with ongoing regular treatment that can last for a period of weeks. Moving forward, some patients benefit from ongoing regular maintenance sessions every few months to keep symptoms at a minimum. In fact, each treatment protocol is unique to the patient and depends on the response and relief.
What are the Risks of Acupuncture for Migraines?
Generally, the risk of acupuncture for migraines is extremely minimal when performed by a qualified practitioner. Mild symptoms, such as bruising may occur. Acupuncture needles are sterile, disposable, single-use, usually stainless steel, very thin needles. The risk of infection is low when undergoing treatment by a qualified acupuncturist who adheres to basic clean needle technique.
What Can I Expect After Treatment with Acupuncture for Migraines?
Different people have different reactions to acupuncture treatment. Some patients feel more relaxed, or even sleepy, while others may feel energized or perhaps emotional. In many cases, patients feel better, and that is what keeps them coming back for migraine treatment. If symptoms are unchanged after several weeks of treatment, or certainly if symptoms worsen, that acupuncture setting (the practitioner or the time patient chose to get treated, may not be the right fit for this specific period.
In essence, if any symptoms seem unusual or worse, patients should follow up with a trusted medical provider.
Final Thoughts on Acupuncture for Migraines
Because acupuncture is a well-established treatment, with few known side effects, it can be a positive treatment intervention for many people who suffer from migraine headaches. Accordingly, it is important to choose an acupuncturist with adequate training and credentials. In fact, most states require that acupuncturists pass a rigorous examination by NCCAOM to be licensed.
By exploring acupuncture as a treatment for migraines, you may find your quality of life improves greatly in a relatively short period of time. If you are seeking Acupuncture in Brooklyn, New York and interested in setting up a consultative appointment to see if acupuncture may help your symptoms, give us a call or you can start by filling out the form below.
Urits I, Patel M, Putz ME, et al. Acupuncture and Its Role in the Treatment of Migraine Headaches. Neurol Ther. 2020;9(2):375-394. doi:10.1007/s40120-020-00216-1