Finding Migraine Relief with Acupuncture

June 3rd, 2020

Acupuncture is an ancient therapeutic practice based on traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) that originated in Asia thousands of years ago. Archeological evidence has revealed clues about how people in the Stone Age – a period that began about 2.6 million years ago and lasted until about 3300 BCE – used sharp stones and other tools to puncture and drain abscesses to relieve pain. But it wasn’t until the Chinese Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), that the foundations of modern acupuncture were recorded for the first time.


The theory behind TCM is that a person’s qi or vital energy has to flow freely through the body to achieve physical and mental balance. According to TCM, an imbalanced qi can cause disease. The goal of acupuncture is to trigger specific points on the skin with needles to access and influence different nerves, tissues, glands, and organs in the body to help rebalance the qi.

Western interest in acupuncture began to gain traction in the 1970s after President Nixon’s visit to China. Nowadays, acupuncture is one of the most researched traditional medicine systems, and results from a growing number of studies have shown that this practice may help ease some types of chronic pain like osteoarthritis, neck pain, and migraine headaches. Western medical acupuncture borrows from some of the same principles of TCM – like the use of needles and the trigger points suggested by traditional acupuncturists – but uses a more scientific approach to study the biological effects that this practice has on the body.

Acupuncture and Migraines

Most of the studies that have been conducted to date on migraine headaches and acupuncture have looked at the preventive rather than the palliative effects of this therapeutic approach. In 2016, an updated systematic review looking at 22 clinical trials with a total of nearly 5,000 participants was published in the Cochrane Library.

 Studying the effects of acupuncture in migraine patients is not always easy. To make sure that results are not biased, researchers do something called “double-blinding” where they assign participants to random groups and compare the treatment cohort to a placebo group. In double-blind studies, neither the participant nor the researcher knows who is receiving which intervention. In most trials, investigators use sugar pills or inactive substances to act as placebos, but it can be harder to find a placebo that mimics the sensations of acupuncture.

For the systematic review, the authors included three types of testing criteria: comparison with no acupuncture, comparison with sham acupuncture, and comparison with a treatment to prevent migraines. Sham acupuncture is a research method where needles are inserted less deeply or in areas of the body away from traditional acupuncture trigger points. The goal of sham acupuncture is that the participants feel that they are receiving the treatment without actually getting the effects of real acupuncture.

The results of the review suggest that acupuncture reduces the frequency of episodic migraine headaches and is at least as effective as prophylactic medications at preventing migraine headaches. Acupuncture was associated with a reduction in headache frequency in comparison to both no acupuncture and sham acupuncture. It also reduced migraine frequency more than preventative treatments, but these results were sometimes not sustained over time.

However, other studies have yielded mixed results, prompting many to believe that the positive response to acupuncture may be due to a placebo effect. One three-group randomized controlled trial conducted between April 2002 and January 2003 in Germany found that acupuncture was no more effective than sham or simulated acupuncture at reducing the frequency or severity of migraine headaches.

In another clinical trial published in The Lancet Neurology, investigators assigned patients to three random groups as well: verum (true) acupuncture, sham acupuncture, and classic migraine therapy. Their results showed that patient’s outcomes were no different between groups, hinting at a potential placebo effect across groups.

Even though more research is needed to clarify whether or not there is a confounding placebo effect, evidence suggests that acupuncture can be a useful addition to a migraineur’s toolkit looking to reduce the frequency of his or her attacks. So, while acupuncture is not a miracle treatment, when used in combination with other therapies such as dietary supplements, a healthy diet, trigger diaries, and abortive medications, this minimally-invasive procedure can help control your migraine symptoms and keep attacks at bay.