Migraine headaches are debilitating and people can find them difficult to manage without prescription medication. Acupuncture may help relieve the pain associated with migraine.

Acupuncture is a type of traditional Chinese medicine in which practitioners insert single-use, stainless steel needles into specific points of the body. Individuals can use acupuncture to replace standard treatments or use it alongside them.

Migraine relief is one reason people visit acupuncturists. About 50% of those visiting an acupuncturist say they have reduced their reliance on painkillers after receiving treatments, according to a 2016 Cochrane review. Evidence suggests that acupuncture may reduce migraine headaches’ frequency or even prevent them from happening. People who use acupuncture along with other treatments have the highest chance of success.

This article looks at acupuncture for migraine. It explores the benefits, risks, general guidelines, and when someone should speak to a doctor.

A person undergoing acupuncture for migraine headaches.Share on Pinterest
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Acupuncture is a type of traditional Chinese medicine that places needles at specific points on the skin. The idea is to change the flow of energy through the body, bringing about balance and harmony. Other effects that acupuncturists say this produces include:

  • increasing blood circulation
  • helping the body to release pain-relieving chemicals, such as endorphins
  • relaxing the muscles

Several studies suggest that acupuncture may help treat pain, including headaches and migraine.

Some benefits of acupuncture for migraine and headaches include:

  • Headache prevention: A growing body of research suggests that acupuncture may help prevent migraine headaches or decrease occurrences. It may be more effective than popular headache remedies, including prescription migraine medications.
  • Cost savings: Some migraine therapies are expensive, and insurance coverage may not fully cover the costs. Acupuncture may help reduce the cost of managing chronic migraine, and some insurance plans may cover it.
  • Fewer side effects: People may experience unpleasant side effects with migraine medication or have medical conditions that make standard medicines unsafe. Acupuncture may be a viable alternative.

Like all medical treatments, acupuncture poses some risks, including:

  • Injuries from acupuncture needles: An unclean acupuncture needle can spread disease and infection. If an acupuncturist inserts the needle incorrectly, it can wound the skin and lead to an infection. It is worth noting that modern acupuncturists do not reuse needles.
  • Incorrect diagnosis: Not all headaches are migraine headaches. While most headaches are not serious or emergencies, a headache may sometimes warn of an underlying medical condition. People who substitute acupuncture for medical care may not receive appropriate diagnosis and treatment.
  • Short-term side effects: Older research from 2010 suggests that about 10% of people report mild, short-term side effects following acupuncture. These include fatigue, headache, nausea, and similar symptoms.

To get the most out of acupuncture, try the following:

  • Talk to a medical provider before trying acupuncture. In some cases, a doctor may be able to refer a person to a trustworthy acupuncturist.
  • Choose a licensed acupuncturist. Read reviews before attending a session, and ask the acupuncturist about sanitary practices and how they minimize adverse reaction risk.
  • Keep a log of headache symptoms. This can help with determining whether and how well acupuncture is working.
  • Seek medical care along with acupuncture. Unless the acupuncturist is also a medical doctor who has attended medical school, they cannot treat disease. Avoid acupuncturists who say they can diagnose medical conditions or who encourage individuals to bypass medical care.

People can find licensed acupuncturists through the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine’s website.

The research on acupuncture and migraine headaches has looked primarily at acupuncture as a tool to prevent migraine headaches—not as a way to treat them when they start. Several studies suggest acupuncture may be a viable treatment.

A 2016 Cochrane review compared 22 trials of acupuncture for migraine. Some studies compared acupuncture to no treatment, while others compared acupuncture and fake acupuncture, or acupuncture and medication.

Researchers found that acupuncture offered benefits in all three scenarios. Acupuncture outperformed fake acupuncture, no other treatment, and standard migraine treatment.

Three months following acupuncture, headache frequency decreased by at least half in 57% of acupuncture recipients and 46% who took migraine prevention drugs. At six months, 59% of acupuncture recipients saw their headaches reduced by at least half, compared to 54% of people taking migraine prevention drugs.

An earlier 2012 randomized controlled trial arrived at similar conclusions. In the study, 480 patients received either one of three types of acupuncture, including electrical acupuncture, or fake acupuncture.

The acupuncture groups reported minor improvements in their headache frequency, 5 to 8 weeks after beginning treatment. By weeks 13 to 16, all acupuncture groups reported significant improvements compared to the fake acupuncture recipients.

A 2017 randomized clinical trial suggests acupuncture may offer long-term migraine prevention benefits. Researchers followed 249 people with a history of migraine headaches without aura for 24 weeks. Participants received either real acupuncture, fake acupuncture, or joined a waiting list.

According to participants’ headache diaries, real acupuncture reduced the frequency and severity of migraine headaches. At the end of the trial, the frequency of peoples’ migraine headaches decreased by 3.2 for the acupuncture group, 2.1 in the sham acupuncture group, and 1.4 in the waitlist group.

The results suggest that acupuncture may help manage migraine. However, the sham group also experienced a reduction in symptoms, pointing to a placebo effect.

People should talk with a doctor if they develop new headaches or a change in their usual headache pattern. Not all headaches are harmless, and it is important to have an accurate diagnosis.

Likewise, if headache medication or acupuncture does not relieve symptoms, or makes them worse, people should see their doctor.

Migraine headaches can cause painful symptoms that make daily life challenging. A growing body of research indicates that acupuncture may help people manage and reduce their symptoms.

People should consider seeing a migraine specialist, especially if medication or acupuncture do not work. The right combination of interventions may help someone find relief from their symptoms.

Although acupuncture can form part of an individual’s treatment plan, they may need multiple treatments for an extended period.