Evidence Supporting The Effectiveness Of Acupuncture In The Treatment of Headaches and Migraine Headaches

The following is a summary of a current article by the Cochrane Collaboration. The Cochrane Collaboration is a nonprofit independent scientific organization dedicated to the advancement of all aspects of medicine and promotion of evidence based practice.  They conducted several reviews of clinical trials on the effectiveness of acupuncture on tension headache and migraine headaches based on the quality of existing clinical trials.  The researchers poured over numerous studies consisting of a total of 6736 participants suffering from headaches or migraines.

A review is an analysis of multiple clinical trials performed all over the world where the quality of each clinic trial was of acceptable quality.  The reason reviews are necessary is because, if they are some studies conducted that have errors or biases, the law of averages will give us a truer picture of a treatment.  Also we want studies to be repeated many times and draw from a larger sample size of the population to give us a more accurate picture of effectiveness.  For instance a single study could speculate that celery is harmful for children while the data upon which that argument was made was collected from only 9 participants!  A study surely designed to be disproven the next week.  This is why we hear many conflicting research that begins thusly, “a new study conducted at so and so says such and such is good for you” only to hear the opposite the next month.  Correlation is not proof.  There needs to be a very large sample size to conclude scientific understanding from a study.  A review provides the sound scientific reasoning we can trust.

Their first review (1) looked at acupuncture for tension headaches. All studies analyzed were conducted for 8 weeks.

2 larger studies looked at the effects of adding acupuncture treatment to those patients who take painkillers.  It was shown that those patients with the combined acupuncture and painkillers therapy received fewer headaches.  47% of patients who received acupuncture and painkillers reported a decrease in the number of headache days by at least half, compared with 16 percent of patients who received painkillers alone.

6 studies compared acupuncture to sham acupuncture.  Sham acupuncture is considered controversial because at times clinicians will insert the needle but use “non acupuncture” points and other times the needles will not puncture the skin.  It is hard to know then if the patients truly believed they were getting the real acupuncture.  Also when the needles were inserted would these points not have the effect acupuncture would have even though the effect may stem from a western understanding of neuroanatomy not from the yin and yang theory as the traditional chinese medical practitioners believe. Overall these studies still found slightly better effects in the patients receiving true acupuncture.

Brian Berman, M.D., director of the University of Maryland Center for Integrative Medicine in Baltimore, confirmed with the findings of the review and adding "I have seen some patients do very well, but not everyone," he said. "Often, the intensity of the headaches and number of headaches are reduced."

"There is more evidence coming out showing acupuncture is safe and often effective and should be considered as part of a multidisciplinary approach for chronic pain," Brain continued.

If I, Adam Lawrence Taylor, see some of my patients experience good outcomes while other need continual treatments to reduce the intensity and number of headaches, I will be as happy as my patients.  But I digress. 


Further studies complied by a second Cochrane review (2) investigated acupuncture for the treatment of migraines.  When acupuncture was compared to routine care with painkillers, the acupuncture treatment group had fewer headaches. 


The Cochrane reviewers draw evidence based conclusions and on this matter they have been decisive there is consistent evidence that acupuncture as a treatment for migraine headaches can stand on its own or provide additional benefit to the treatment of acute migraine attacks for those people already taking medication.

(1)Linde K, et al. Acupuncture for tension-type headaches. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2009, Issue 1.

(2)Linde K, et al. Acupuncture for migraine prophylaxis. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2009, Issue 1.