Dealing with headaches? A new study indicates that acupuncture can help


July 6, 2022 — Dena Ressler, a New Jersey retiree in her 60s, had a “drilling headache” that lasted 3 months. He came in with a cough and shortness of breath. After serious medical conditions were ruled out, it was discovered that her headache was stress-related.

“It was constant, scary, and it wouldn’t go away,” she recalls.

Ressler is a clarinetist in a band that performs klezmer music, a genre traditional to Ashkenazi Jews in Central and Eastern Europe. After weeks of pain, she decided to try acupuncture. And after 3 weeks of regular appointments, the headache went away and didn’t come back.

“Once in a while, when I’m really tired, I may feel the same pain in my head – maybe once a month or every two – but it’s very mild,” she says.

It wasn’t the first time Ressler had used acupuncture. Decades ago, when she was in her thirties, she suffered a serious injury that made her less able to move around.

“It took 18 months to get to where I am now – almost fully functional,” she says. “Although I can’t ride a bike anymore and still have to be careful not to overdo it, I can do my own gardening and I was able to start playing the clarinet again.”

Scientific research supports acupuncture

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Healthacupuncture may be a reasonable option for people with chronic pain (including migraine or tension headaches), provided the acupuncturist is experienced, well trained, and uses sterile needles.

Chinese researchers have recently published the results of a new study which involved 218 patients with chronic tension headaches. Most had suffered from headaches for 11 years and had an average of 21 headache days per month.

The patients were randomly divided into two groups. One received “real acupuncture”. The other group received more superficial “sham” acupuncture. Both groups had 20 sessions spread over 2 months and were followed for an additional 6 months.

More people in the real acupuncture group, compared to the sham group, showed improvement in their headaches: 68.2% of patients in the real acupuncture group had fewer monthly headache days, compared to 48.1% in the sham group after 16 weeks. At 6 months, the real acupuncture group continued to have fewer monthly headaches, compared to the sham group (68.2% versus 50%, respectively).

“Tension-type headaches are one of the most common types of headaches, and people who suffer from them may seek alternatives to medication,” said study author Ying Li, MD. , PhD, from Chengdu University of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Chengdu, China, said in a press release.

Headaches and Women

“It was a very well done study,” says Shi-Hong Loh, MD, an acupuncturist with offices in Hoboken and Hackensack, NJ, but it has its limitations.

Most of the study participants were women (74.5% in the real acupuncture group), and Loh thinks researchers haven’t paid enough attention to the role of sex in headaches and response to treatment.

“In my experience, 95% of the people who come to me for headache treatment are women,” says Loh, who is the former chief of hematology and oncology at St. Mary in Hoboken. While still on staff at St Mary’s, he now has a private medical acupuncture practice.

“Female headaches are often related to life stress and are also strongly influenced by hormonal imbalances or changes, such as those that occur during menstruation“, he notes.

The researchers’ selection of acupuncture points was “OK, but not enough, in my opinion, since women have points in other areas,” Loh says. “If I was treating a woman with headaches, I would have used more points than them and maybe treating them differently than I would treat a man.”

How does acupuncture for headaches work?

According to traditional Chinese medicine, headache is a form of stagnation chi into the energy pathways of the body, and acupuncture unblocks stagnant areas, leaving the chi flow freely, Loh said.

Chi is a life force that travels through our bodies through pathways called meridians,” he says. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, there are 14 separate but connected meridians, each linked to a different organ. A blockage leads to stagnation, this is where the disease begins. Placing needles at various points along these meridians will release the blockages and eventually the pain will subside.

This mechanism “cannot be understood or examined by Western medical technology, but it works, from the Chinese medical perspective,” Loh says.

Acupuncture also works for migraine

A recent study found acupuncture helpful for migraine. The researchers analyzed 15 studies involving more than 2,000 patients and found that seven out of 10 studies showed less frequent and less severe headaches. Four studies have shown that acupuncture was just as effective as western medical approaches, but had fewer side effects.

The researchers concluded, “Acupuncture may be recommended as an alternative or adjunct to drug therapy for patients with migraines.

Not ‘one size fits all’

Loh says researchers in the acupuncture for tension headache study used the same points for everyone studied. “But according to [traditional Chinese medicine], headaches are not “one size fits all”. They have different presentations which require the use of different acupuncture points.

For example, headaches usually involve either the gallbladder or the bladder meridian. If a person’s headache is on the side of the head, it usually involves the Gallbladder meridian. So Loh then uses points related to the gallbladder. But if the headache is in the front or back of the head, it’s probably related to the bladder meridian.

Additionally, “tension headaches are often back-to-front headaches and can be related to poor posture and poor neck position at work, often related to excessive computer use. So I advise people to pay attention to their posture at work,” he says. And stress “is a universal problem that can also cause headaches, so I also recommend stress management, not just acupuncture, as part of a treatment protocol.”

More information on how acupuncture works, how to find an acupuncturist, and what to look for in an acupuncturist can be found by clicking on the links below.

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health

National Commission for Certification in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine

Council of Acupuncture and Herbal Medicine Colleges


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