Migraine Treatment: Acupuncture Therapy


Acupuncture Therapy

Popularity is building behind alternative forms of chronic migraine treatment, and for good reason. Many new care options offer reprieve from symptoms without harsh side effects or strict daily regimens. 

Some sufferers choose to venture into unconventional treatments because they are not responding well to traditional medications or injections. Others are looking for a preventative measure in addition to their current regimen. Regardless of the reason, the desire is the same. Migraine sufferers want to do whatever it takes to improve quality of life. As awareness behind this condition increases, more research is being conducted to draw useful conclusions about alternative treatment efficacy. 

One form of treatment gaining significant attention in the migraine world is acupuncture, which may help to not only prevent migraines but also treat current attacks. Interested in learning more about this ancient form of therapy? Here’s what you should know:

What is Acupuncture?

Acupuncture is believed to have originated from China, dating back to as early as 6000BCE. The practice is based on the belief that we possess a life energy that flows throughout our body. This energy flow takes place within channels called meridians that connect all of our major organs. Throughout these meridians, there are specific points, sometimes referred to as ‘acupoints’, which can influence the flow of this energy. When energy flow blockages occur, the body is believed to be susceptible to pain and illness.

Acupuncture works to restore energy flow by stimulating specific acupoints (associated with the blockages) using ultra-fine needles that are inserted just beyond the surface of the skin and gently manipulated to create a desired effect. 

How does it work?

When tiny needles are inserted at acupoints, a chain reaction occurs within the body. First, sensory receptors are excited, which leads to the stimulation of nerves that convey impulses to the hypothalamic-pituitary system, which is located at the base of the brain. The hypothalamus-pituitary glands located within this system are responsible for emitting neurotransmitters and endorphins (the body’s natural pain-fighting hormone). 

  • Overall, acupuncture has the following affects:
  • Decreased inflammation
  • Release of tension in the body
  • Increased circulation
  • Pain relief
  • Regulates serotonin levels

All of which, are contributors to migraine pain.

What to Expect

Before treatment, the acupuncturist will swab the pre-selected insertion points to disinfect and clean the areas. An average session will include the insertion of up to 15 needles. The depth of insertion varies from a quarter of an inch to three inches. Patients typically only feel slight pain while the needle is being inserted. After that, no discomfort or pain should be experienced.

Acupuncture Theories

There are several conjectures for why acupuncture works to alleviate chronic pain.

  • One theory suggests that stimulation caused by the tiny needles disrupts pain signals from reaching the brain.
  • Another theory suggests that acupuncture raises anti-body levels, which help your body to fight illness.
  • As discussed above, another common belief is that Acupuncture releases endorphins, which act as the body’s natural painkiller.
  • Acupuncture is also thought to increase circulation of blood cells to an injured area for faster healing.

Acupuncture for Migraine Treatment

Acupuncture is used in two different ways for the treatment of migraines.

  1. For care during a migraine attack: In this approach, the goal is to minimize activity of the blood vessels in the head and neck (so as not to progress migraine symptoms). To achieve this, acupoints are only stimulated in the arms and legs and patients are usually placed in a sitting position, rather than the traditional laying down position for greater blood vessel control in the head. More studies are required of this treatment to determine it’s true value.
  2. As a preventative therapy: Stress and tension can contribute to the onset of a migraine episode. As a preventative, acupuncture targets specific acupoints to restore balance in the central nervous system, which controls how the body deals with stress and can influence the onset of a migraine attack. Many studies support the success of this treatment approach.


A recent study published by the Canadian Medical Association Journal tested the effects of acupuncture on nearly 500 adults who experienced monthly migraine attacks. Participants were divided into two groups, one that received traditional, Chinese acupuncture (using acupoints) and the other receiving ‘sham’ acupuncture (which does not use acupoints). Neither group knew which form of treatment they were receiving.

  • All participants experienced fewer days with migraines.
  • 50% reported a reduction in migraine frequency.
  • Improvement in frequency and intensity continued after one month
  • Only traditional acupuncture showed lasting results (up to 3 months after treatment).

Prior to more recent clinical trials, Duke Medicine, an academic and health care system, reviewed over 30 studies that examined the testing of acupuncture versus medication in over 4,000 migraine sufferers. Their analysis found:

  • In 17 studies, 62% of patients reported headache relief with acupuncture over 42% relief with medication.
  • Acupuncture patients also reported improved physical health after treatment.
  • In 14 studies that examined traditional versus ‘sham’ acupuncture, traditional was more effective with 53% satisfaction.

Side Effects

The side effects of acupuncture therapy are minimal compared to other forms of migraine treatment and may include:

  • Soreness, bleeding or bruising near needle insertion sites.
  • Injury to internal organs (If needles are inserted too deeply).
  • The development of an infection at insertion sites.
  • The sensation of heaviness, tingling or numbness.

Am I a Candidate for Acupuncture Therapy?

Acupuncture therapy isn’t for everyone. Migraine sufferers with certain pre-existing conditions like blood related disorders are not suitable candidates for this treatment. Additionally, acupuncture therapy may use mild electrical pulses in addition to the needles to further induce stimulation. These electrical pulses can interfere with pacemakers or other surgically implanted mechanical devices. 

Talk to your doctor about acupuncture therapy for migraine treatment. They are most familiar with your medical history and will be able to help determine if this method could be helpful for you. If you decide to move forward with acupuncture, only schedule with a licensed and experienced acupuncturist. Failure to do so could increase your risk for infection, transmitted diseases and other serious side effects.

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Image Source: andrew d miller


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