Acupuncture involves stimulating specific parts of the skin, often through the use of thin needles. The practice has existed for thousands of years in Asian countries and is part of traditional Chinese medicine, per the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. More recently, Western medicine has been trying to understand how it might be helpful for their patients.
Studies suggest it’s effective at reducing nausea and pain in cancer patients, according to the National Cancer Institute, which raises questions about whether it’s useful for other forms of pain, such as migraine.
So, should you throw away your headache medicine? Not quite.
Does acupuncture help migraines?
The short answer is maybe. “We do not have enough evidence for me to strongly say acupuncture is helpful or hurtful,” Mason Dyess, DO, a general neurology and headache medicine physician at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans, tells Health. There are, however, a number of smaller studies and a few decent-sized systematic reviews that speak to its effectiveness.
Specifically, Dr. Dyess points to a 2019 systematic review in the journal Headache. It included seven clinical trials, for a total of 1,430 participants, comparing acupuncture to standard pharmacological treatments for migraine. Several of these studies individually suggest that acupuncture could be more effective than standard treatment; however, it’s not possible to look at all of their results as a whole because their methods of testing were so different from each other.
So for the time being, it’s still an open question about whether acupuncture definitively improves migraines. But “acupuncture (and acupressure) are both tools we have in our toolbox,” says Robert Cowan, MD, professor of neurology and chief of the division of headache medicine at Stanford University.
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What are the benefits of acupuncture for migraines?
While many studies suggest that acupuncture is safe and effective, large-scale randomized controlled trials are still needed to verify its clinical value, per a 2020 review in Neurology and Therapy. Based on the evidence to date, the review authors highlight one potential benefit: a reduction in the frequency and duration of migraines.
A systematic review from 2016, for example, saw headache frequency drop by 50% after six months in more than half of patients who received acupuncture treatments, reports the American Migraine Foundation.
"I've had mixed results with my own patients," says Dr. Dyess. "I've seen patients have an overall mild or just modest reduction in overall headache frequency. Likewise, I've had patients have a modest reduction in average headache intensity as well. Then I've had some people that had no relief at all from acupuncture."
Still, it can take a while for any migraine treatment to work, and not all of them will. "That can be said for any of the preventive or acute medicines," he adds.
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What are the risks of acupuncture for migraines?
Acupuncture is low-risk for most people, particularly if you’re going to a skilled practitioner, according to the Mayo Clinic. While there’s some potential infection risk by piercing the skin, standard practice is now to use single-use disposable needles, which greatly reduces the chance of that happening. You may feel some soreness or experience mild bleeding or bruising.
However, there are a few people who might need to avoid acupuncture:
- People with bleeding disorders or who are on blood thinners, because this may increase your risk of bleeding or bruising from the needles.
- People with pacemakers need to avoid any form of acupuncture that uses electrical pulses, which can compromise a pacemaker's functioning.
- Pregnant people should be careful, as some forms of acupuncture are thought to stimulate labor.
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What to know before you try acupuncture for migraines
Dr. Cowan was quick to emphasize that acupuncture shouldn't be thought of as a singular medical practice, but part of a larger mode of treatment. "Acupuncture is one part of traditional Chinese medicine, along with moxibustion, herbs, and so forth," he says. In the same way you wouldn't go to a doctor who is only familiar with antibiotics, you don't want your acupuncturist to only have training in acupuncture.
"Pick your provider carefully and trust them to select the best treatment, whether it is Western or traditional Chinese, Ayurvedic, or whichever," he says.
He also advises that you don't seek out a provider for a specific treatment. "Go for advice, recommendations, help," he says, rather than expecting they'll prescribe a particular treatment.
If you're working within Western medicine, Dr. Dyess recommends continuing any treatments you're already using to manage migraines. Research shows that preventive medicines are effective, he says. "Acupuncture should be used as an add-on therapy to that."
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