Acupuncture — an ancient practice dating back 3,000 years — has been of interest to many people looking for a more natural remedy to manage their migraine symptoms. Over the past few decades, researchers have found that adding acupuncture to the treatment plan for migraines may lower the intensity and frequency of migraines and help prevent future episodes. Here’s everything you need to know.
Acupuncture involves inserting very thin needles into the skin at specific points on the body, called acupoints or acupuncture points. It’s believed that when the needles are inserted into the skin, the needles stimulate the nervous system to help reduce pain.
The insertion of acupuncture needles may also lead to increased blood flow and healing in the treated area. Acupuncture may lead to changes in the levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine and also changes in molecules such as endorphins, which affect how we sense pain. However, more research needs to be done to further understand how acupuncture influences the body.
There are several types of acupuncture:
Acupuncture is generally considered a safe and effective treatment option for migraines. Acupuncture is unlikely to cure migraines, although several studies have found it to help reduce the frequency and severity of headaches and other migraine-related symptoms.
One study found that acupuncture is more effective than standard care (medications and lifestyle changes) and placebo treatments (inactive treatments) in people with migraines. Specifically, participants who underwent acupuncture reported having less nausea associated with their migraines.
Acupuncture may help reduce the severity and frequency of chronic headaches, such as tension headaches and migraine headaches. A review of 22 clinical trials found that in people with migraines, acupuncture reduced the frequency of headaches by 50 percent. Six months after acupuncture treatment, 59 percent of participants reported lasting improvements in the frequency of their headaches.
Studies have found that almost half of migraine attacks occur between 4 a.m. and 9 a.m., and people with migraines often have a greater risk of developing sleep disorders. Irregular sleep due to these issues can disrupt the brain and the body’s ability to renew and repair itself, which may increase the likelihood of migraines. Although limited research has been done with acupuncture on migraine-related sleep disturbances, acupuncture is a safe and effective treatment for insomnia in general.
Stress is a trigger for migraines in about 70 percent of people with migraines. Acupuncture has been shown to lower levels of stress and anxiety and stimulate the release of endorphins (“feel-good” chemicals in the body that reduce stress and pain).
Overall, acupuncture is a safe and well-tolerated treatment option for migraines. It has minimal side effects if performed by a board-certified acupuncturist who uses sterile, single-use needles. Some potential side effects of acupuncture include:
Some groups of people may also have a greater risk of complications:
Research on acupuncture for migraines is limited. Current studies in people with migraines only provide evidence of the short-term benefits of acupuncture on headaches. More clinical trials are needed to determine the long-term benefits of acupuncture and explore acupuncture’s effect on other migraine-related symptoms, such as fatigue and extreme sensitivity to light, sound, touch, and smell.
Acupuncture is also a time commitment — it is advised that people with migraines attend one to two sessions per week for about five to eight weeks to see a benefit.
Because it’s considered safe and may provide some benefit, acupuncture may be a good complementary or alternative migraine treatment for people who do not respond well to prescribed medications. If you’re interested in trying acupuncture for your migraines, work with your neurologist and other health care providers to find the right balance of treatments for you.
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