Acupuncture is recommended by the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) for treating headaches and migraine. It has a range of mechanisms that work to reduce the symptoms of headaches and migraine and increase healing. It is safe to use in the long-term, avoiding any drug-related side-effects. On top of this it is safe to use along-side said drugs. It is also useful for related-symptoms, such as stress, lethargy, and depression.
About condition headaches and migraine
Headaches are the most common health issue in the UK, with more than 10 million people regularly getting headaches. In extreme cases they are called migraines and often come with other symptoms such as seeing auras, nausea, vomiting and increases sensitivity to light and sound. Migraines are considered the third most common disease worldwide, with nearly 15% of people suffering. One in every 5 women, and one in every 15 men suffer with migraines.
Migraines are the 7th most disabling disease and the leading cause of disability among all neurological disorders. It is estimated that the UK population as a whole loses 25 million work or school days each year due to migraines. Severe migraine attacks are classified among the most disabling illnesses, comparable to dementia, quadriplegia and psychosis. As a result depression is 3 times as common in migraine sufferers. The causes are unclear but brain chemistry, genetics and hormones seem to play a role.
Current treatment for headaches is over the counter medication, which can work in some cases. Headaches also response quite well to dietary and lifestyle changes. Migraines, however, are harder to treat with conventional medication, especially as the causes are not fully understood. Current medications used are either analgesics, anti-convulsants, beta-blockers or anti-depressants. Whilst these can help, they do not always work. They can also have a variety of side-effects, including; lethargy, palpitations, nausea, diarrhea, difficulty concentrating, dizziness, depression, insomnia, hair loss, reduced libido and impotence.
Acupuncture for headaches and migraine
Acupuncture, on the other hand, has no such risks associated with it and has been shown, in a range of studies, to be safe. It has also been shown to be beneficial for headaches and migraines. So much so that The World Health Organisation recommends it, as does The National Institute of Clinical Excellence, meaning that the NHS can prescribe acupuncture for headaches and migraines. However, provision is, sadly, very low.
Perhaps the largest research into acupuncture for headaches and acupuncture for migraine was the York study, where a data-set of nearly 18,000 patients was amassed. In it they stated that, ‘Acupuncture was also found to be better than standard medical care for all of these chronic pain conditions.’ As well as the York study, the Cochrane Collaboration has stated, ‘The available evidence suggests that a course of acupuncture consisting of at least six treatment sessions can be a valuable option for people with migraine.’ The Cochrane collaboration are the most respected research institution on the planet, so when they say something this bold it is important.
How does acupuncture benefit headaches and migraine?
Acupuncture has been used to treat headaches and migraines for centuries. It is known to balance the mind and body and restoring physiological functioning. Research is showing a variety of mechanisms that contribute to these effects. These include:
- 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
- Reducing inflammation – by promoting release of vascular and immunomodulatory factors
- 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).
- Modulating extracranial and intracranial blood flow.
- Affecting serotonin (5-hydroxytriptamine) levels in the brain. (Serotonin may be linked to the initiation of migraines; 5-HT agonists (triptans) are used against acute attacks.)