Acupuncture Headache Sufferers

Research: Acupuncture Treatment Provided Significant Relief for Migraine and Tension Headache Sufferers
Tim H. Tanaka, Ph.D.

Two recent studies have suggested that acupuncture is an effective treatment for migraine and tension-type headaches. These studies are randomized, multi-center trials and two of the largest and most rigorous studies which have examined efficacy of acupuncture. The findings from these studies, however, were somewhat controversial and open the door for interpretations and discussions.

The first study, which was published in the May 4, 2005 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, randomly assigned 302 migraine patients to three study groups1. Group one underwent 12 acupuncture sessions (traditional Chinese style acupuncture, involving deep needling) over eight weeks; group two had “minimal” acupuncture; and group three had no treatment. The “minimal” (sham) acupuncture group underwent treatment as frequently as the real acupuncture group, but fewer needles were used and the needles were inserted only superficially into the skin.

The results of this study established 51% of patients who had “true” acupuncture experienced at least a 50% reduction in the number of headache days while only 15% among those waiting for treatment experienced the same reduction. The difference between the acupuncture group and the no treatment group was large enough to conclude that acupuncture was effective for migraine headache. However, this finding was complicated by the fact that 53% of those patients who underwent “minimal acupuncture” (which was given with an intention to simulate acupuncture) also experienced at least a 50% reduction in the number of headache days.

In a second study, which appeared in the August, 2005 issue of the British Medical Journal, researchers utilized similar study protocol as the migraine trial, but tested the efficacy of acupuncture on 270 patients with tension-type headache2. The results were strikingly similar to the outcomes of the migraine study. It demonstrated that the number of days with headache decreased by 7.2 days in the acupuncture group, the minimal acupuncture group followed closely with 6.6 days, while the no treatment group managed an improvement of 1.5 headache-free days. Authors of the study stated, “An intriguing finding of our trial is the strong and lasting response to minimal acupuncture. The improvement over, and differences compared with the waiting list group are clearly clinically relevant” 2.

Some acupuncturists believe that it is essential to deeply insert the needle and manipulate it vigorously in order to achieve a beneficial effect by acupuncture. This more is better American concept does not necessarily apply to acupuncture treatment. Traditionally, many Japanese practitioners have been using an extremely gentle superficial needling technique and producing excellent results in their patients’ conditions. In our practice, it is not an uncommon event to encounter a noticeable change in a patient’s condition upon a single small needle insertion just under the skin. Human skin contains a number of receptors that trigger powerful physiological reactions. The efficacy of this superficial needling technique has been studied in Japanese and Canadian research facilities. A study conducted at The Pacific Wellness Institute demonstrated that a single superficial acupuncture treatment provided instant reduction of pain among patients with tension-type headache3. The significant pain reduction, however, occurred only when superficial acupuncture was applied in synchronization with patient’s respiratory rhythm.

More studies are certainly needed to elucidate how exactly acupuncture works and what types of acupuncture techniques can be most effective for each condition or individual. In clinical practice, experienced acupuncturists consider not only acupuncture point location but also various other factors such as needling depth, intensity of stimulation, respiration, and patient position, in attempt to produce the most consistent results. Our goal at The Pacific Wellness Institute is to deliver highly effective treatment while providing a safe and comfortable treatment experience.

  1. Linde, K. et al. Acupuncture for patients with migraine: A randomized controlled trial. JAMA, 2005; 293(17):2118-25.
  2. Melchart, D. et al. Acupuncture in patients with tension-type headache: Randomized controlled trial. BMJ, 2005; 331(7513):376-82.
  3. Tanaka, T.H. et al. The physiological responses induced by superficial acupuncture: A comparative study of acupuncture stimulation during exhalation phase and continuous stimulation. Int J Neurosci 1997; 90(1-2):45-58.

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