An ancient alternative: Acupuncture and acupressure for migraine

Your migraine headache may be the result of one or more triggers, which can include eating and sleeping habits, certain foods, muscle tension, stress, medications, hormone changes and even the weather. What causes a migraine headache is different for each person. While you can stay away from some migraine triggers — such as certain foods — it is impossible to avoid others, such as stress, changes in your hormone levels, and, of course, the weather. So it is important to have a complete diagnosis and assessment of what is causing your migraines. It is also important to realize that there may not be one single solution: Your migraine relief will depend on putting together a “package” of treatments that responds to your own migraine triggers. And for this, you need a health care provider who will become your long-term partner in finding the treatments that are right for you.

Did you know that half of the people with migraine headaches treat themselves and do not seek medical help? The problem with trying to treat your migraines on your own is that you may not have the correct diagnosis, and you will also be missing out on a personalized, systematic approach to pain relief from a knowledgeable doctor. In this article, you will learn about two treatments that could be part of such a systematic approach to migraine treatment: acupuncture and acupressure.

What you will learn in this article

  • What are acupuncture and acupressure?
  • How do these treatments help migraine symptoms?
  • Is there evidence of their effectiveness?
  • How can you best use these treatments?

Acupuncture and acupressure

Part of a medical system that originated in China thousands of years ago called Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), acupuncture and acupressure are both considered “energy-based” approaches to pain management. TCM is based on the idea that energy, called “qi” (pronounced “chee”), flows throughout the body, much like the flow of blood. Blockages to this energy flow are thought to cause disease or pain. Inserting tiny needles into certain acupuncture “points” on the skin is thought to remove these blockages and restore the free flow of energy. Acupressure also uses these points on the skin, but instead of needles, practitioners use their hands to apply pressure to the area, restoring energy flow through a massage-like technique. There is usually no pain during either of these treatments, which should be performed by certified practitioners. You might, however, feel a tingling sensation, and most people also report feeling deeply relaxed.

How do acupuncture and acupressure help migraine symptoms?

It is thought that acupuncture works in part through the release of neurotransmitters such as endorphins in the human brain. While we do not completely understand the mechanisms it is thought that acupuncture acts to dampen pain signals within the brain. Acupressure may have a different effect. Its similarity to massage may relax the muscle spasms, pain and stiffness that are associated with migraine, providing some pain relief.

What’s the evidence?

In one of the largest studies of its kind, a team of investigators in Italy examined the effectiveness of acupuncture versus a variety of pharmacological (drug) therapies in treating migraines. Their results revealed that patients given acupuncture experienced fewer migraine episodes, missed fewer days from work, and suffered no side effects compared to patients on conventional drug therapy. They also found acupuncture to be more cost-efficient, estimating a savings of hundreds of millions of dollars in private and social health expenditures if it were used to treat headaches alone instead of drugs.

A more recent study found that acupuncture and the drug sumatriptan were both more effective than placebo in preventing a full migraine attack. This study is consistent with other findings that early treatment with acupuncture is just as effective as medication in preventing a migraine attack. In this trial, acupuncture and sumatriptan were more effective than a placebo injection in the early treatment of an acute migraine attack. When an attack could not be prevented, however, sumatriptan was more effective than acupuncture at relieving headache.

The bottom line: what should you do?

Rather than rushing off to find an acupuncturist, your first step should be to find a health care provider who can give you an accurate diagnosis — since many headaches of different types are often misdiagnosed as migraine, and vice versa. The next step is to develop a systematic collection of treatments that respond to your particular migraine and its triggers. These might include acupuncture and acupressure (the latter is a technique you can learn to perform on yourself), as well as dietary changes, stress management and medication. The key to successful treatment is communication and continual reassessment of what is working. Keep talking with your health care provider.

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References

Ligori, A., Petti, F., Bangrazi, A., Camaioni, D., Guccione, G., Pitari, G.M., et al. (2000). Comparison of pharmacological treatment versus acupuncture treatment for migraine without aura – analysis of sociomedical parameters. J Tradit Chin Med, 20 (3): 231-240.

Melchart, D., Thormaehlen, J., Hager, S., Liao, J., Linde, K., Weidenhammer, W. (2003). Acupuncture versus placebo versus sumatriptan for early treatment of migraine attacks: a randomized controlled trial. J Intern Med, 253 (2), 181-188.