Acupuncture is a common treatment in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) that has gained momentum in Western medicine. The therapy involves the placement of thin, disposable needles just under the skin, which are targeted to locations on the body known as “acupoints.” The goal of acupuncture is to harmonize the energy flow within the body.
The insertion of acupuncture needles stimulates an increase in pain-killing endorphins and serotonin levels in the blood and brain. Acupoints for migraine treatment will vary by patient and symptoms but include locations on the ears, face, forehead, neck, hand, or forearm.
In 2007, a randomized and controlled trial of acupuncture coupled with the migraine drug rizatriptan found that the acupuncture group had better outcomes than the group who took rizatriptan alone. And an earlier trial that coupled acupuncture with flunarizine had similar findings.
Another study of 300 migraineurs who underwent twelve sessions of acupuncture over a three-month period found that the therapy resulted in twenty-two fewer headache days per year, 15 percent less medication use, 25 percent fewer visits to the doctor, and 15 percent fewer sick days attributed to headache compared to those who didn't have the treatments.
But not all the research on acupuncture in migraine backs its clinical efficacy. A large German trial found that what is known as “sham acupuncture,” which is a type of placebo involving the superficial and nontherapeutic insertion of acupuncture needles, is just as effective as regular acupuncture treatment.
Sham acupuncture was used as a placebo treatment in the control group (the group of study participants not receiving the treatment being studied) of the trial. The control group experienced levels of migraine pain relief similar to the group who did receive genuine acupuncture, indicating that it may have been the patients' expectations for the treatment that produced the beneficial results, not the treatment itself. However, some acupuncture researchers have questioned the results of these trials, stating that even sham acupuncture stimulates nerve activity and hormonal changes involved in the relief of pain.
When performed by an experienced licensed acupuncturist, acupuncture is extremely safe. The needles used are disposable and the skin is swabbed with disinfectant prior to puncture, so the risk of infection is very slim. Needles are inserted just under the skin, so bleeding is minimal, if it occurs at all. The only side effect may be a slight burning sensation at the site of the needle entry.
Not all health insurance plans will cover acupuncture treatments, which can make it an expensive treatment option for some. However, given that studies have documented a significant decrease in both the amount of prescription medication and sick days from work among migraineurs who undergo the treatment, it may be even more cost-effective than traditional medical options for some.