Acupuncture for Migraines

I have been practising as a therapist for almost 12 years and have treated many patients for acute migraines. I have noticed over the years that some health conditions are quicker to respond to treatments than others and at the top of the list in my clinic, is migraines. 

I have specialised in fertility issues for many years and whilst we judge the success of the treatment by the arrival of a pregnancy, often the patient will remark that they haven’t had a single headache since they began treatments with me. 

Many of the patients (predominantly women) are not just having the odd headache. I’m talking about severe migraines that are uncontrollable with medicines. Migraines that leave sufferers in bed for at least 2 weeks out of the month. Extreme pain, nausea, vomiting, visual auras, sensitivity to light, speech and vocabulary affected. 

It is an awful condition which affects every day quality of life. 

Western Medicine

There are several western medicines such as beta-blockers, amitriptyline, sodium valproate which are used to reduce attack frequency, but all are associated with adverse side effects. Many of the patients I see are increasingly concerned as nothing seems to really help and they are moving up the scale in terms of serious medication. 

I am by no means recommending that someone stops taking a medicine prescribed to them by a GP or consultant, but acupuncture can be used alongside these drugs with no contraindications. 

There have been many research studies into the effectiveness of acupuncture to treat migraines. 

In one such study, patients suffering with chronic headache (80% with migraine) were given 12 sessions of acupuncture over 3 months. This resulted in 34% fewer headache days, 15% less medication, 15% fewer days off work and 25% fewer GP visits after one year. 

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) include in their headache guideline (2012, updated 2015) that a course of up to 10 sessions of acupuncture may be offered by a healthcare professional if neither topiramate or propranolol are suitable or work well for a particular patient. (Migraine Trust)

Traditional Chinese Medicine

The Chinese methodology of diagnosis is very different to a Western approach.

Illness occurs when there is an imbalance of Yin and Yang and a stagnation of Qi and/ blood. The basic fundamental philosophy of TCM is to balance the Yin and Yang of the organs and the harmonising of Qi and Blood. Where these factors are out of balance, insufficient or in excess, that is where illness occurs. 

The head is one of the most important parts of the body, being the uppermost part of the body where all the Yang meridians meet. Qi and blood flows up to the head from the Zang and Fu organs. Any disruption to this flow can create pain.

A TCM trained practitioner will investigate into what exactly is causing the headaches, and not just look to relieve the symptoms but re-balance the underlying causes.  Whilst there can be many contributing factors in TCM to a migraine, they can be generally categorised into FIVE possibilities;

  1. Liver-Yang Aggression: Pulsating or throbbing headaches triggered by heat, stress or foul temper, dizziness and confusion, dry mouth, insomnia, painful and itchy eyes, yellowish urine.
  2. Stagnant Blood: Localised sharp piercing pain with throbbing sensations, painful when pressed on even when not going through a migraine attack, dry mouth in the night, dried and flaky skin, sharp pains in the eyes.
  3. External Wind and Cold: Headaches triggered by cold or dry air, mild dizziness, stiff neck, aversion to cold environment, pain alleviated by a hot compress.
  4. Liver-Qi Stagnation: Expanding, throbbing headaches, triggered by stress or negative emotions, depression, mood swings, breathlessness, loss of appetite.
  5. Phlegm Blockage: Heavy and pulsating headaches, extreme dizziness and sleepiness, nausea and vomiting, blurred vision, indigestion, reduced urination, irregular bowel movements.

In Practice

Whilst the understanding of migraines from both a western and eastern perspective is complex,  I have found over the years that in real life practice, the treatment and results are relatively straight forward and acupuncture is particularly effective treatment. 

A significant reduction in pain severity and frequency of headaches is noticed after just one treatment. Even in severe cases where the patient is bed-bound for more than 50% of the month, they often report an immediate improvement, with over 75% of symptoms alleviated after 3 treatments. 

I have treated patients whilst they are experiencing the migraine and whilst they are in-between attacks. They do not have to be in the middle of an attack to benefit from the treatment. I measure success in terms of frequency and intensity. 

My patients have less migraines in a month and when they do have one, it is less intense than before

Treatment Plan

Every patient I see is unique so a thorough medical history is taken at the first appointment. After I have gathered all the information and made my own TCM assessment, I will treat the patient with acupuncture. This does not hurt. Once the fine needles are in place, the patient will have time to rest and relax. Often the patient is so relaxed they are snoring after a few minutes. 

I usually recommend a second treatment about a week later. 

After that, the treatment plan will depend on how the patient is feeling, how many headaches they have had in between treatments etc. It is always my intention to increase the time in between appointments whilst maintaining a pain-free patient. 

If you would like any further information or would like to book an appointment, please visit my website

Research Summary:

  • Providing pain relief – by stimulating nerves located in muscles and other tissues, acupuncture leads to release of endorphins and other neurochumoral factors and changes the processing of pain in the brain and spinal cord (Zhao 2008, Zijlstra 2003, Pomeranz, 1987)
  • Reducing inflammation – by promoting release of vascular and immunomodulatory factors (Kim 2008, Kavoussi 2007, Zijlstra 2003).
  • Reducing the degree of cortical spreading depression (an electrical wave in the brain associated with migraine) and plasma  levels of calcitonin gene-related peptide and substance P (both implicated in the pathophysiology of migraine) (Shi 2010).
  • Modulating extracranial and intracranial blood flow (Park 2009).
  • Affecting serotonin (5-hydroxytriptamine) levels in the brain (Zhong 2007). (Serotonin may be linked to the initiation of migraines; 5-HT agonists (triptans) are used against acute attacks.
  • Acupuncture has been found to be cost-effective (Witt 2008; Wonderling 2004). 
  • As well as prevention it may also be used to alleviate symptoms in acute attacks (Li 2009).
  • There is preliminary qualitative evidence from patients that acupuncture can increase coping mechanisms as well as relieve migraine symptoms (Rutberg 2009).