An introduction to headaches in general
The W.H.O. calculates that 50% of the world population experience headaches in any given year (1). There are many different types of headaches including migraine, tension-type, cluster and medication-overuse headaches.
Migraine Headaches: A typical migraine headache is of moderate or severe intensity, unilateral, and can last from hours to days at a time. Often with an aura (nausea, sensitivity to light, halo vision, sound sensitivity, etc…). Migraines are experienced most often in persons between the ages of 35-45 years of age, and are more common with women. (1)
Tension Headaches: Often described as pressure or tension that wraps around the head or spreads out from the neck. Tension headaches are the most common type of primary headache disorder, reported to be experienced by more than 70% of the population. Tension headaches can be categorized as episodic or chronic depending on how often they occur. Tension headaches also occur more often in women than men (3:1 ratio), and can often be triggered by stress and musculoskeletal tension in upper back and neck. (1)
Cluster Headaches: Much less common than tension or migraine headaches, affecting less than 1:1000 adults and more men than women (6:1 ratio). Cluster headaches are frequently recurring headaches (can occur many times per day), are intensely painful, of short duration, most often focused around one eye, and can be episodic or chronic in nature. (1)
Medication-Overuse Headaches: The most common secondary headache disorder, caused by overuse of medications that are meant to treat headaches. The excessive use of these medications can cause rebound headaches which can be persistent. (1)
How acupuncture reduces pain
Acupuncture is pretty remarkable in that it can reduce pain via multiple pathways in the body. In Chinese Medicine, most pain is characterized by a blockage of qi and blood in the meridian system, and the mechanism for reducing pain is to unblock the channels to get qi and blood moving again. In scientific terms, and supported by quality research, acupuncture is thought to perform multiple actions that modulate pain including, but not limited to, promoting blood flow (5, 6), releasing the body’s own natural painkillers (6), balancing the body’s stress responses (5), stimulating healing through micro trauma (5), and reseting the nervous system so that the body can correctly address chronic injury and pain (7, 8).
Studies show that acupuncture is an excellent approach to reducing headaches
For example, randomized controlled studies reviewed by Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that acupuncture was able to reduce migraines in almost 3/4 of participants by 50% or more. Both pain, quality, duration and need for medication were reduced in the majority of participants (2).
Cochrane reviewed 12 trials with over 2,000 participants comparing pain medication to a combination of pain medication and acupuncture and found that half (50%) those who received acupuncture in addition to pain medication had headaches reduced by at least half (50%). This out performed pain medication which only reduced 17% of participant’s headaches (4).
Harvard Health Publishing reported on a meta-analysis of acupuncture for common pain conditions, including headaches, which combined data from 23 high quality randomized controlled trials, involving nearly 18,000 participants that “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.” (3)
The British Journal of Medicine concluded from randomized controlled studies that acupuncture reduces headaches (9), and the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that acupuncture has long lasting pain reducing affects on those with chronic migraines (10).
In short, some of the most renowned peer reviewed medical journals are reporting on the ability of acupuncture to reduce pain in those experiencing chronic and acute headaches, sometimes significantly out performing medication. Considering that there are almost no side effects from acupuncture, compared to devastating side effects from prescription medications such as opioids, and rebound headaches from other common headache medications, it makes sense that more and more people experiencing pain should give acupuncture a try.
How often should I receive acupuncture for headaches?
The University and Royal Melbourne Hospital researchers concluded, “Acupuncture can be used as alternative and safe prophylaxis for frequent migraine. Our recommendation is that practitioners treat migraine sufferers twice per week for at least eight weeks.” (2) At Lakewood Community Acupuncture, we recommend receiving acupuncture twice a week as you begin treatments, and then as your headaches reduce considerably, and the patient has no headaches between sessions, gradually spreading out treatments. We also recommend cupping therapy as an additional method of relaxing the upper back and neck muscles, in combination with acupuncture.
About the Author: Jamie Holland is a licensed acupuncturist and applied clinical nutritionist. He is the cofounder of Lakewood Community Acupuncture, the first nonprofit community acupuncture clinic in Colorado. He is committed to offering affordable holistic healthcare and is always striving to embody the healthy lifestyle he encourages in his patients by being active in meditation and community, healthy eating, organic gardening and enjoying the outdoors with his wife, Kate, and their dogs, Luna and Zoey
- World Health Organization: Headache Disorders, 8 April 2016
- Acupuncture for Frequent Migraine: A Randomized, Patient/Assessor Blinded, Controlled Trial with One-Year Follow-Up, Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2015:1-14 · June 2015
- Acupuncture for Headache, Harvard Health Publishing, Helene Langevin, MD and Carolyn A. Bernstein, MD, FAHS, January 25, 2018
- Acupuncture for tension-type headache, 19 April 2016, Cochrane, Linde K, Allais G, Brinkhaus B, Fei Y, Mehring M, Shin B, Vickers A, White AR
- Chinese Medicine Demystified (Part IV): How Acupuncture Works, Chris Kresser, 03/11/2010
- Acupuncture in pain management, British Journal of Anaesthesia, Jonathan Wilkinson, MB ChB MRCP FRCA Richard Faleiro, BSc (Hons) DCH FRCA, Continuing Education in Anaesthesia Critical Care & Pain, Volume 7, Issue 4, 1 August 2007, Pages 135–138
- Chinese Medicine Demystified (Part V): A Closer Look At How Acupuncture Relieves Pain, Chris Kresser, 03/14/2010
- A Randomized controlled trials on the effects of Acupuncture and Proprioceptive Neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) on supraspinatus tendinitis, IOSR Journal of Dental and Medical Sciences, Volume 13, Issue 11 Ver. VI (Nov. 2014), PP 63-69
- Acupuncture in patients with tension-type headache: randomised controlled trial. BMJ, August 2005.
- Acupuncture for Patients With Migraine: A Randomized Controlled Trial. JAMA, May 2005.