An acupuncture needed is carefully inserted into the shoulder of a personShare on Pinterest
Researchers say acupuncture can help reduce the frequency of tension headaches. Aubrie LeGault/Stocksy
  • Frequent or chronic tension headaches can impact a person’s quality of life.
  • Researchers from the Chengdu University of Traditional Chinese Medicine found acupuncture helps lower the frequency of chronic tension-type headaches by 50 percent.
  • Researchers hope their findings will encourage medical professionals to recommend acupuncture for people with primary headaches.

Headaches are a common ailment that almost every person has experienced at one time or another.

People often turn to over-the-counter pain medication or stress-relieving practices, such as yoga or massage, as remedies for infrequent headaches.

However, for some people, headaches are more frequent, affecting their quality of life.

People with frequent or chronic tension headaches caused by stress may experience 10 or more days of headaches per month. And finding a treatment for tension headaches can be difficult as not all remedies work for everyone.

Now, researchers from the Chengdu University of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Chengdu, China, are reporting that the ancient practice of acupuncture helps reduce the frequency of headaches in people with chronic tension-type headaches by half.

The study was recently published in Neurology, the American Academy of Neurology medical journal.

Acupuncture began in China about 3,000 years ago, with its first documented use dating back to 100 BCE.

During acupuncture, a practitioner inserts thin needles through the skin into various body parts. Different areas of the body correlate with easing symptoms of different ailments.

Researchers have studied the effects of acupuncture on various conditions, including low back pain, fibromyalgia, dental pain, and allergic rhinitis, commonly known as hay fever.

There has also been research surrounding acupuncture as a treatment for headaches, especially migraine. Migraine refers to a series of less common headaches normally accompanied by nausea and extreme sensitivity to light and sound.

Additionally, scientists have studied the use of acupuncture for both prevention and pain reduction in tension-type headaches.

In the recent study, Dr. Ying Li of Chengdu University of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Chengdu, China and the lead author of this study, said the primary aim was to test whether acupuncture was effective for people with chronic tension-type headaches. Researchers also wanted to test whether the effect of acupuncture would last for at least six months.

“Tension-type headaches are highly prevalent and many patients did not respond to current medications treatment,” Dr. Li explained to Medical News Today.

“Complementary therapeutics, such as acupuncture, are popular among these patients, so we are focusing on this condition,” he added.

The study included 218 people diagnosed with chronic tension headaches. Study participants had an 11-year history of the diagnosis on average, reporting nearly 22 headache days in a typical month.

Participants randomly received either true or superficial acupuncture. In true acupuncture, a practitioner inserts acupuncture needles into the body to achieve a deqi sensation, such as a tingling or heavy feeling in the body. In superficial acupuncture, a practitioner inserts the needles less deeply. Deqi sensation is not achieved during superficial acupuncture.

“By comparing true acupuncture with superficial acupuncture, we tried to test whether deqi sensation has an essential role in the effect of acupuncture, since deqi sensation is unlikely to be achieved in superficial acupuncture, or deqi sensation is much weaker in superficial acupuncture,” Dr. Li explained.

Both patient groups received two or three 30-minute sessions of acupuncture per week for a total of 20 sessions over a 2-month period. The research team followed both groups for an additional six months, during which all participants were asked to keep headache diaries to record headache occurrences, as well as their intensity, and duration, among other details.

The researchers defined “a responder” as a participant who reported at least a 50 percent reduction in the average number of headache days per month. At the conclusion of the study, the researchers found that 68 percent of participants who received true acupuncture were responders. Of those who had superficial acupuncture, 50 percent were responders.

According to researchers, side effects from the acupuncture treatment were few, mild, and did not require any treatment.

Dr. Li said he hoped this research will help medical professionals use acupuncture for people with primary headaches.

When asked about the next steps for their research, Dr. Li said the team “might study whether acupuncture is cost-effective in the management of tension-type headaches, especially when compared with conventional treatments, such as TCA antidepressants.”

MNT also spoke to Dr. Deena Kuruvilla, medical director and neurologist at the Westport Headache Institute in Westport, Connecticut, about this study. She said that although there are existing studies about the use of acupuncture for the management of migraine and tension-type headaches, the results have been conflicting.

“Less is known about the use of acupuncture for chronic tension-type headache so this study offers insight into that population,” Dr. Kuruvilla added. “I view all integrative treatments such as acupuncture as a welcome addition to mainstream pharmacological medications. These study results aid in adding to the existing evidence that acupuncture may be helpful for patients with tension-type headache.”