Acupuncture for Migraine Headaches
Migraines are not just ordinary headaches; they are complex neurological events characterized by severe, throbbing pain—typically on one side of the head—often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound. The pain and accompanying symptoms can last for hours or even days, significantly affecting your quality of life and everyday activities. Acupuncture is a natural therapy that has been shown to be a safe and effective treatment for migraines.
As an acupuncturist with 18 years in practice, I have seen firsthand how acupuncture can be effective for migraine sufferers. Acupuncture works by correcting imbalances in the body, reducing inflammation, and stimulating the body’s natural pain-relieving mechanisms. Because it corrects the underlying imbalance we can see long-term improvement and reduction in dependence on medications.
In this article, I will explain how acupuncture works to treat migraine headaches and how it can be integrated into a holistic approach to reducing your migraine episodes. I also discuss the scientific research supporting its efficacy for migraines.
Migraine Symptoms and Causes
Migraines are a type of headache disorder characterized by recurrent episodes of moderate to severe headache, usually described as a throbbing or pulsating pain, often on one side of the head. These episodes are frequently accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light, sound, and sometimes smell. Migraines can last for hours, and in severe cases, can persist for several days, causing significant impairment in quality of life and daily functioning.
While the exact cause of migraines remains unclear, they are believed to result from abnormal brain activity affecting nerve signals, chemicals, and blood vessels in the brain.(1) Numerous triggers can precipitate a migraine attack, including hormonal changes (particularly in women), stress, sleep disruption, specific foods or drinks, sensory stimuli (such as bright lights or loud sounds), and changes in weather or barometric pressure. Identifying and managing these triggers can play a crucial role in migraine prevention.
Acupuncture for Migraine Headaches
Acupuncture is a vital part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) with a history that stretches back over 2,000 years, making it one of the oldest and most widely used systems of medicine in the world. The philosophy underpinning acupuncture views health as a state of harmonious balance of the body’s vital energy, or Qi (pronounced “chee”).
Qi flows through a network of channels or pathways known as meridians. Disruptions to this flow of energy are thought to result in illness. Also if there is a lack of energy in the body this can lead to illnesses. The treatment aims to restore this imbalance and bring about healing.
The meridians cover specific areas of your body and can be used to relieve pain on specific areas. If you have migraines which are one sided it may be the Gallbladder channel is affected. Acupuncture points along this channel help get the qi flowing. If your migraines are on the forehead the stomach channel would be most involved. If the headache is behind your eyes, then the kidney channel is involved. Acupuncture points on those specific channels can be used to relieve the pain.
Trigger Points and Migraines
Trigger points are hyper-irritable spots found in the skeletal muscle. They are associated with palpable nodules in tight muscle fibers, which produce pain when compressed and can prompt a specific pattern of pain referred to other parts of the body.
When a trigger point in one muscle is activated—through stress, poor posture, muscle overuse, or injury—it can produce a referred pain pattern in different areas. This means that the muscle tension in one area will build up and lead to pain in another. During my exam, I will look for trigger points on your shoulder and neck that may be referring pain to the head and contributing to your migraine. Acupuncture helps to deactivate these trigger points to reduce the occurrence and severity of migraines.
The first step in any acupuncture treatment is a thorough consultation and assessment. This involves discussing your medical history, lifestyle, symptoms, and any triggers you’ve identified for your migraines. I will also examine your tongue, pulse, and certain acupressure points to get a clearer picture of your overall health as well as the underlying imbalance.
Based on the initial assessment, I will develop a personalized treatment plan. The acupuncture process involves the insertion of very thin, sterile needles into specific acupuncture points. The points are chose based upon the underlying imbalance as well as the location of the headache. Once the needles are inserted, they are usually left in place for a period ranging from 15 to 30 minutes. The insertion is painless, and patients often report a sense of relaxation or well-being during the treatment. Trigger points may also be address if they are involved in the headaches.
The frequency and total duration of acupuncture treatments is generally 1-2 sessions per week for the first few weeks, gradually reducing frequency as symptoms improve. A typical course might last for 10-12 weeks, but some individuals may see improvements sooner, while others may require longer-term treatment.
Once your symptoms have improved significantly, you may enter a maintenance phase. This could involve less frequent treatments aimed at preventing the recurrence of migraines and maintaining overall health and balance.
It’s important to note that everyone’s experience with acupuncture is unique. While some people may see significant improvements in their migraine symptoms after just a few sessions, others may require more time to see the benefits.
How does Acupuncture Work?
Acupuncture works by stimulating the body’s inherent healing mechanisms. This happens in the nervous system, cirulatory system, and immune system.
Studies have shown that acupuncture works to regulate pain centers of the brain associated with migraine headaches.(2) Using an fMRI scan of the brain, researchers showed that acupuncture actually changed the way the brain perceived pain and regulates parts of the brain that are in charge of controlling pain.
Acupuncture also triggers the release of various chemicals and hormones in the brain and spinal cord, including endorphins (natural painkillers) and neurotransmitters, which naturally reduce pain and stimulate the body’s self-healing mechanisms.
Acupuncture also helps to enhance circulation, thereby helping to reduce inflammation and deliver nutrients and oxygen to tissues that need healing. It also regulates the body’s immune system and reducing inflammation which can help to reduce the headache.
Numerous scientific studies and clinical trials have shown that acupuncture provides both immediate relief for an acute migraine and also prevents future migraines. (3, 4)
One large review article included 22 studies with a total of 4985 patients comparing the effects of acupuncture to no treatment or routine care, sham acupuncture, or prophylactic drug. (4)
The review found that acupuncture reduced the frequency of headaches in individuals with episodic migraines. They also found that acupuncture was superior to usual care and sham acupuncture, suggesting that acupuncture could be a viable option for patients willing to undergo this treatment.
Another large meta-analysis on many types of pain showed that acupuncture was superior to both sham and no-acupuncture control for each pain condition, suggesting that acupuncture can have a significant clinical effect on migraines. (5)
Migraine headaches can be debilitating, affecting millions of people worldwide. While conventional treatments can be effective, they do not work for everyone, and some individuals may experience significant side effects. Acupuncture, a traditional component of Chinese medicine, is a natural and effective treatment for migraines.
By targeting specific points on the body, acupuncture aims to restore the balance of Qi, stimulate endorphin release, and alleviate migraine symptoms. Please call us at 212-319-5757 or click below to make your appointment online.
- Goadsby PJ, Holland PR, Martins-Oliveira M, Hoffmann J, Schankin C, Akerman S. Pathophysiology of Migraine: A Disorder of Sensory Processing. Physiol Rev. 2017;97(2):553-622. doi:10.1152/physrev.00034.2015.
- Zhao, L., Liu, J., Zhang, F., et.al. (2014). Effects of long-term acupuncture treatment on resting-state brain activity in migraine patients: a randomized controlled trial on active acupoints and inactive acupoints. PLoS One, 9(6), e99538. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0099538
- Zhao L, Chen J, Li Y, et al. The long-term effect of acupuncture for migraine prophylaxis: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA Intern Med. 2017;177(4):508-515. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.9378.
- Linde K, Allais G, Brinkhaus B, et al. Acupuncture for the prevention of episodic migraine. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016;(6):CD001218. Published 2016 Jun 28. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD001218.pub3.
- Vickers AJ, Vertosick EA, Lewith G, et al. Acupuncture for Chronic Pain: Update of an Individual Patient Data Meta-Analysis. J Pain. 2018;19(5):455-474. doi:10.1016/j.jpain.2017.11.005.
Feedback From our clients…
“The condition that encouraged me to consider acupuncture was intense migraines and high levels of stress. My migraines have disappeared and generally I feel more relaxed and at ease with my stress. The treatments were very personalized and Dr. Alban always took the time to discuss and understand my problems. I never felt like he was in a rush or too busy to treat me – which so often is the case with NYC doctors. During the treatment he always made me feel at ease and when I was done I immediately and always felt much better than when I had entered his practice one hour before. Dr. Alban was always flexible with meeting times and his concern, care and attention for his patience appears to be unprecedented. I have already referred a family members, I would definitely recommend Dr. Alban to anyone seeking acupuncture.”
~ K.F., Brooklyn