Acupuncture and Migraines

This treatment is used for prevention (and sometimes treatment) of attacks

Acupuncture has been used as an approach for migraine prevention. While less common, it has also been used for the treatment of acute migraine attacks. When done properly by a qualified acupuncturist, this treatment is generally very safe and is not typically associated with serious complications.

You may have heard from friends who have tried acupuncture for their migraines that it helped or didn't. In addition to personal stories, also consider the results of well-controlled research trials, which suggest that acupuncture may indeed be an effective approach for managing migraines.

beautiful woman has a headache. Acupuncture treatment for migraines. Needles in the forehead of a woman close-up on a brown background
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How It Works

A typical acupuncture session involves the insertion of fine needles into acupuncture points on the body followed by gentle manipulation of the needles.

Acupuncture practitioners say that this promotes blood flow in the tissues through a mechanism known in alternative medicine as the "axon reflex," which may dilate (widen) the small vessels around the needle area.

But there are additional theories that may explain how acupuncture works, and acupuncturists believe that there is more than just one process involved in relieving symptoms. Over the long term, acupuncture is believed to support parasympathetic nervous system activity, allowing the body to maintain optimal heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure, all of which can trigger a migraine when disrupted.

Muscle tension, which can overstimulate the body's pain response, is also believed to be relieved by repeated acupuncture sessions. Alterations in the electrical activity of the brain may also play a role in reducing migraine frequency after a series of acupuncture sessions.

By limiting the acupuncture points to the arms and legs and avoiding the head and neck areas, the pain-relieving effects of acupuncture may be activated, while avoiding vasodilation that could exacerbate a migraine.

Use for Chronic Migraine Prevention

Acupuncture is often considered for migraine prevention, especially among people who want to avoid the side effects of chronic prophylactic medications. There are a number of scientific studies supporting the benefits of acupuncture in migraine prevention.

Certainly, a therapy like acupuncture can induce a placebo effect, causing people to believe that a beneficial effect will take place. Research on acupuncture in migraine prevention typically includes comparisons to sham acupuncture, which involves the placement of needles into areas that are not believed to relieve symptoms. Several studies have found that acupuncture works better than sham acupuncture in migraine prevention.

For example, a study in China included 249 participants who experienced between two and eight migraines per month. One group received acupuncture five days a week, while the other group received a sham version of the treatment on the same schedule. After four weeks, the group receiving acupuncture had a decrease of three migraines per month, while the sham group had a decrease of two migraines per month.

When used for prevention, acupuncture sessions are typically performed several days per week for five to 10 weeks.

After about 20 acupuncture sessions, you may experience a reduction in your migraine frequency. It is unclear, however, how long this effect is sustained and whether you can maintain migraine prevention if you stop having regular acupuncture sessions.

Additionally, acupuncture has been proposed as an effective treatment for some disorders that are known to trigger migraines. If you have anxiety, depression, insomnia, or a stress-related disorder, treating the disorder with acupuncture may also help prevent migraine attacks.

Use for Acute Migraine Treatment

Pain during a migraine is believed to be associated with dilation of blood vessels in the brain. Acupuncturists suggest that increasing blood flow by inserting needles into the head and neck area would not be helpful during an attack, and it may even temporarily worsen your symptoms.

In addition, acupuncture as a treatment for acute migraine episodes can be impractical. This requires going to see an acupuncturist for treatment at the time of a migraine, which means that your acupuncturist has to be available and that you have to have the time to go in for your treatment when you have a migraine. The impracticality is one of the reasons that there is little research and data in this area.

There are, however, a few studies that suggest that acupuncture may relieve the pain of a migraine, but it is not clear whether the effect is sustained. In fact, one study found that acupuncture only improved migraine pain for one hour after needle placement.

Before Trying Acupuncture for Migraines

Acupuncture is an ancient eastern medical technique that has remained popular and has been adopted worldwide as a treatment for many medical conditions. The procedure requires training and experience, so be sure to find a practitioner who is qualified and who is ready to explain your treatment and answer your questions.

Keep in mind that, while it isn't common, headaches can be a sign of a serious medical problem, such as meningitis or a brain tumor. And not all chronic headaches are migraines. Sometimes, recurrent headaches are tension headaches, a medication side effect, or they may be caused by other conditions such as trigeminal neuralgia.

Be sure to see your healthcare provider and get a medical diagnosis regarding the cause of your headaches before you seek alternative treatment.

A Word From Verywell

Recurrent migraines interfere with quality of life. Medications used for migraine prevention and relief of acute migraine attacks can cause side effects and may not work for everyone. It is worthwhile to consider alternative treatments. Acupuncture is a safe treatment option that may be effective in reducing migraine frequency, and may also help relieve an acute migraine attack.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Hau Tu C, MacDonald I, Hung Chen Y. The effects of acupuncture on glutamatergic neurotransmission in depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s disease: A review of the literatureFrontiers in Psychiatry. 2019;10:14. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00014

  3. Farahmand S, Shafazand S, Alinia E, Bagheri-Hariri S, Baratloo A. Pain management using acupuncture method in migraine headache patients; A single blinded randomized clinical trial. Anesth Pain Med. 2018;8(6):e81688. doi:10.5812/aapm.81688

  4. Ahmed F. Headache disorders: Differentiating and managing the common subtypes. Br J Pain. 2012;6(3):124-32. doi:10.1177/2049463712459691

Additional Reading

By Cathy Wong
Cathy Wong is a nutritionist and wellness expert. Her work is regularly featured in media such as First For Women, Woman's World, and Natural Health.