Researchers in China have authored a new study1 on the benefit of acupuncture as a treatment for migraines, and the study has even made it to some high profile online networks, including CNN. We take a closer look at the findings of the study and what past research has shown on the ancient Chinese medical practice.
Acupuncture may help reduce attack frequency, new study suggests
Participants in the clinical trial were randomly assigned either to receive true acupuncture treatment, sham acupuncture, or be put on a waiting list. All had migraine without aura and shared similar condition characteristics. Licensed professionals administered treatment to both groups for four weeks; active acupoints were identified and specific sensations elicited for the true acupuncture patients. After sixteen weeks, those who had received proper acupuncture saw a more significant decrease in migraine frequency as well as lower intensity of attacks. This means acupuncture could be an option for those with migraine.
Is acupuncture effective for treating migraines?
Previous studies have shown that acupuncture can help reduce frequency and intensity of attacks for patients with chronic daily headache as well as for migraineurs,2 in some cases twelve weeks after treatment.3 The American Headache Society and prominent headache specialists have endorsed both true and sham acupuncture treatments in the past, citing their ability to control pain signals and inflammation through the release of endorphins. This has been supported by medical research4 showing that any acupuncture may at least be as beneficial to individuals with migraine as other prophylactic or preventative medications.
However, many questions have been raised about whether or not acupuncture is truly an effective alternative for migraine patients. Some researchers have highlighted the relatively small difference between the improvement of true acupuncture versus a sham treatment. Others point to a high potential of the placebo effect, which was also a cited limitation of this new study.
Dr. Amy Gelfand, assistant professor of neurology at the University of California, offered her take on the Chinese findings. Although it has numerous strengths, she said, there are several inherent concerns: “Placebo response is strong in migraine treatment studies, and it is possible that the Deqi sensation—that is, the sensation of numbness, soreness and distention—that was elicited in the true acupuncture group could have led to a higher degree of placebo response.”
Should you consider acupuncture as a treatment for migraines?
As with other potential treatments, consulting your doctor or specialist is the best place to start when considering acupuncture. He or she should be able to provide better context given your medical history and subsequently identify the most appropriate course of treatment. If recommended, he or she might also be able to refer you to a licensed acupuncturist.
1Zhao L, Chen J, Li Y, Sun X, Chang X, Zheng H, Gong B, Huang Y, Yang M, Wu X, Li X, Liang F. The Long-term Effect of Acupuncture for Migraine Prophylaxis: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Intern Med. Published online February 20, 2017. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.9378.
2Alecrim-Andrade J, Maciel-Júnior JA, Carnè X, Severino Vasconcelos GM, Correa-Filho HR. Acupuncture in migraine prevention: a randomized sham controlled study with 6-months posttreatment follow-up. Clin J Pain. 2008 Feb;24(2):98-105. doi: 10.1097/AJP.0b013e3181590d66.
3Plank S, Goodard JL, Pasierb L, Simunich TJ, Croner JR. Standardized set-point acupuncture for migraines. Altern Ther Health Med. 2013 Nov-Dec;19(6):32-7.
4Linde K, Allais G, Brinkhaus B, Fei Y, Mehring M, Vertosick EA, Vickers A, White AR. Acupuncture for the prevention of episodic migraine. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016 Jun 28;(6):CD001218. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD001218.pub3.