Should I Try Acupuncture For Headaches?

acupuncture for headaches

With a more than a 3,000 year history, acupuncture is a low-risk method that helps many with pain relief. It was first introduced in China and spread throughout Asia before making its way westward to Europe and the United States. Partly due to its ancient history and efficacy, acupuncture has been acknowledged by both the National Institutes of Health and the World Health Organization as an effective alternative treatment for a variety of chronic pain conditions. We’ll talk about more of the history of acupuncture later in this post, but first let’s look at how acupuncture for headaches could help.

Why acupuncture for headaches? 

For people dealing with the effects of chronic head pain, such as migraines, acupuncture can be an excellent alternative to medications or invasive treatments. It may also work in conjunction to traditional medicine.

Research in the early part of the new century indicated that head pain was extremely susceptive to the relief provided by acupuncture. The results showed that patients who were given acupuncture treatments:

  • Had fewer days of head pain
  • Used less medication
  • Required fewer visits to their doctors

Based on this evidence, the consensus of the medical community is that acupuncture treatments won’t hurt in addition to traditional care and may, in fact, enhance the overall experience and relieve more pain than would be eliminated by medical methods. You may not be able to stop taking prescribed medications, but you could cut back which would always be considered desirable.

How long does acupuncture for headaches take?

For head pain most treatment plans will be about six to 12 sessions. You can talk with your doctor and practitioner to develop the best treatment options for your specific needs.

There are a variety of conditions that cause head pain. They include:

  • Migraine headaches
  • Tension headaches
  • Chronic headaches
  • Cluster headaches

Having the proper medical diagnosis and treatment plan in place before pursuing alternative treatments is essential. Head pain can be a symptom of a more critical problem. If head pain occurs in conjunction with vomiting, dizziness, fever, extreme neck pain, or hypertension seek medical advice immediately.

How to find someone who offers acupuncture for headaches?

The most important first step when getting acupuncture for headaches is to find a licensed and reliable practitioner. The licensing requirements do vary from state to state, so look into what is required where you live.

You may also want to work with someone who has been certified by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. You should always discuss alternative treatments like acupuncture with your doctor or specialist. They may even be able to provide you with a referral.

Now that you have some idea of why acupuncture for headaches may be useful to reduce your pain, let’s look more into this fascinating treatment approach.

How does acupuncture work?

Acupuncture centers on the idea of channeling the body’s natural energy, known as qi. This energy flows through 12 meridians of the body, which acupuncturists are trained to map and understand. These channels are divided along a line that represents masculine and feminine energy, known as the yin and yang. Three yang meridians are in the upper extremities and three are in the lower extremities. There is an equal balance of yin in these areas of the body as well.

In addition, there are eight non-designated meridians in the body. When there is disease, pain, or distress in the body the flow of energy is blocked or imbalanced. Acupuncturists will insert fine needles at very specific points along these energy channels to help the correct flow of energy resume.

Ultimately, we don’t really know exactly how acupuncture works, although we are gaining new insight every year. It appears that acupuncture sends signals physiologically through the body’s neurotransmitters which then restore the natural balance. Without the presence of a specific condition in need of treatment, or energy realignment, the practice does not work.

There are very few risks reported with acupuncture and many of them date back to a time before single-use, sterilized needles. Since sterile practices were adopted universally, the risks dropped dramatically. What risks that remain are usually caused by individuals who are not trained properly. Before seeking acupuncture treatment, thoroughly research the clinic and practitioner.

Acupuncture benefits 

A NIH Consensus Conference on acupuncture in 1997 concluded:

“There is sufficient evidence of acupuncture’s value to expand its use into conventional medicine and encourage further studies of its physiology and clinical value.”

The mechanism of action for acupuncture has been studied, leading to the current theories of how acupuncture is actually affecting the body regarding pain control. Current research suggests acupuncture can affect neurotransmitters, resulting in an increase of endogenous opiates, which influence pain sensitivity.

There are three types of endogenous opiates: beta endorphins, enkephalins, and dynorphin. Beta endorphins are found primarily in the pituitary gland, and enkephalins and dynorphin are both distributed throughout the nervous system. With electroacupuncture frequencies, the electrical current can be altered to release more dynorphins or beta endorphins.

New research shows adenosine plays a large role in the pain relieving benefits of acupuncture. Adenosine, a molecule that influences inflammation and sleep, also acts as an endogenous opiate. Using mice with injured paws, scientists first demonstrated adenosine was released during acupuncture. In mice that didn’t have adenosine receptors, there was no relief from pain. A group of mice was given an approved leukemia drug that lengthens the amount of time that adenosine stays in the body. With the drug, the animals experienced relief for three times as long: some three hours instead of just one.

A 2006 Mayo Clinic study for fibromyalgia also found that acupuncture significantly improved symptoms of fibromyalgia. Symptomatic improvement was not restricted to pain relief and was most significant for fatigue and anxiety.

head pain acupuncture

What should I expect during an acupuncture procedure? 

Acupuncture is an elegant medical art. Practitioners use sterilized disposable needles on the body to help rebalance this flow of qi. The needles are very thin and solid which allows them to slide into the skin easily. The insertion of the needle is not typically considered painful and most patients say they never feel the tiny needles as they are tapped into their skin. In fact, most people consider the treatments relaxing while others feel the energy stimulation.

Some acupuncturists are also trained in a practice called moxibustion where the needles are warmed with incense before placed on the body. There is also a form of acupuncture where electrical stimulation is used on the needles. This practice has been performed since the 1930s.

The patient is asked to lie on a treatment table, usually fully clothed. Thin needles are inserted in key locations designed to treat the specific pain pattern of each patient. Once the needles are inserted, the patient relaxes. Many patients fall into a peaceful sleep. After the appropriate amount of time, the needles are removed and the patient is free to go. The practitioner will work with their patients to determine where to focus the acupuncture for the best pain relief specific to the patient’s needs. A typical treatment will last for 20 to 30 minutes.

Does acupuncture hurt? 

Most patients report acupuncture is painless. However, there is sometimes a brief instant of discomfort at insertion.

Once in place, however, there is no feeling elicited from the needles. Most patients would be unable to close their eyes and tell the practitioner where the needles have been placed; they simply fade into the background while the patient relaxes.

Are there any risks? 

With further research, we better understand how acupuncture works. And yet, there is much unknown. Acupuncture seems to be giving the body a physiological message utilizing neurotransmitters to help restore normal function. If there’s no need for a particular condition, acupuncture isn’t going to help.

The adverse effects from acupuncture have been documented, and most of them predate the current use of single, sterilized, disposable needles. When sterile technique is adhered, there are few adverse effects. There are also a few cases of needles being used by those who have been improperly trained, resulting in inappropriate needle depth. The risks of acupuncture are rare when performed by someone with proper training.

There are two groups who practice acupuncture. One set of practitioners have the initials LAC, a licensed acupuncturist. LAC practitioners have graduated from an accredited acupuncture college, and have taken and passed a national board exam. The other group consists of medical professionals; MD, Do, DC, or NP who have taken a special courses and are certified in acupuncture. Always look for certified practitioners to avoid any risks.

What is the history of acupuncture? 

Acupuncture history is fascinating. Acupuncture has been used as a treatment modality for more than 3,000 years in China. This treatment modality was first in the spotlight of the U.S. public in 1971.

In the United States, acupuncture was first described by James Reston, a New York Times reporter, in 1971. While on an assignment in China he became ill with appendicitis. While his surgical treatment was conventional and his appendix was removed, his post-operative care was augmented with acupuncture to help ease the pain. In July of that year he wrote an article that detailed the experience and introduced the Western world to this Eastern medicine.

While acupuncture does indeed have an ancient history in Eastern medicine, it has become both accepted and prescribed as an effective treatment for many painful conditions in Western medicine too. Both the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the World Health organization have acknowledged acupuncture as an effective treatment modality for conditions involving pain and nausea.

Get acupuncture for headaches

If you seek out acupuncture for headaches and find it successful, share your experience with others. Acupuncture is widely accepted in the United States but it still has an air of mystery. Shedding a light on the practice, what to expect, and the results are an important part of furthering a better understanding of this and other alternative medical treatments.

Have you tried acupuncture for headaches? How did it help you?