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Acupuncture for headaches and migraines

Updated: Jan 8

acupuncture for headaches

Migraines affect 1 in 4 households in the U.S. and more than 1 billion people globally. Migraine is a neurological disease without any cure. Pharmacological treatments or prophylaxis carry many unwanted side effects. Symptoms can vary from head pain, sensitivity to light and sounds, nausea, brain fog, and dizziness. Common triggers include stress, alcohol, caffeine, sugar, low blood sugar, dehydration, and poor sleep hygiene. People with migraines have hyper-excited brains and are sensitive to external stimuli even outside of attacks. This makes them more susceptible to common triggers.

Common causes of headaches & migraines

  • Hormonal imbalances in menstruating, postpartum, or perimenopausal women can cause headaches, mainly due to drops in estrogen levels.

  • Stress/anxiety

  • Poor sleep hygiene can be a predictor of having a headache the next day or can make you more sensitive to pain the next day.

  • Exercise-induced headaches that are brought on by and occur during or after strenuous exercise. They are more likely to occur in hot weather or at high altitudes.

  • Vestibular migraines - due to symptoms of inner ear problems such as vertigo.

  • Cervicogenic headaches are triggered by an injury or muscle imbalance affecting the neck and cervical spine.

  • Post-traumatic headaches from concussions or car accidents

Research on acupuncture for migraines

Acupuncture can be used as a treatment for headaches and migraines to reduce the intensity and frequency of attacks. This systematic review looked at 15 different randomized control trials (RCTs) to see if acupuncture was a helpful treatment for migraines. They found seven out of 10 trials that compared acupuncture with sham acupuncture showed a more significant reduction in the frequency of migraine attacks and headache intensity. Four studies revealed acupuncture is just as effective and has fewer side effects than any Western medicine. In summary, acupuncture appears to be an emerging preventative treatment and can be as effective as medications for migraines. In addition, it has longer-lasting effects, is safe, is cost-effective, and reduces drug intake with the possibility of severe unwanted adverse effects.

Treatment with acupuncture for headaches and migraines

After a full assessment of your health history and palpation of your neck and back muscles, treatment plans are based on your specific presentation. We may use one or a combination of the following techniques to help your migraines.

  • Motor point acupuncture utilizes electric stimulation to activate weakened muscles or loosen overworked and tightened muscles in the neck and upper back region. These muscle imbalances can entrap sensory nerves that run up the back of the head, which can cause headaches. This is commonly called a pinched nerve.

  • Trigger points in the neck and upper back muscles are musculoskeletal dysfunctions that can contribute to your headaches. Trigger points are areas of myofascial restriction that cause pain and can also refer pain to different areas of the body. Below are a few pictures of the trigger point (marked by the X), and the referred pain patterns are the areas in red.

For example, if you have trigger points in your upper trapezius muscle, you can experience headaches in your temples, in the back of your head, side of your head, pain in the angle of your jaw, facial pain, and pain behind the eye.

acupuncture for headaches

Below are the suboccipital muscles of the neck. They are very tiny muscles underneath your skull (shown in red in the picture on the right). If you have trigger points here, you can have temporal headaches and pain behind the eyes.

acupuncture for headaches

Below is the sternocleidomastoid muscle located at your clavicle and sternum and runs up behind the ear. If you have trigger points here, you can have pain on top of your head, temporal headaches, frontal headaches, pain behind the ear, jaw pain, pain around the eye, facial pain, and inner ear pain.

acupuncture for headaches

  • Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) approach is another way to treat headaches and migraines, especially if they are not caused by trauma or musculoskeletal dysfunction in the neck and upper back. This approach uses distal acupuncture points located on the meridians of the legs and arms and local points on the head based on your specific pattern in Chinese medicine. TCM can be helpful for hormonal, stress-induced, vestibular, and sleep-deprived headaches.

Lifestyle changes

In addition to acupuncture, the following lifestyle changes can help manage the frequency and intensity of your migraine attacks:

  • Maintain stable blood sugar levels by eating every 4-5 hours and pairing carbs with protein or fat.

  • Maintain a healthy diet; sometimes, going gluten and dairy-free is often helpful.

  • Avoid common triggers: high histamine foods, alcohol, caffeine, chocolate, and sugar.

  • Practice good sleep hygiene.

  • Practice minimal impact exercises such as gentle stretching, walking, cycling, and gardening.

  • Seek out therapies for anxiety, such as breath work, EMDR, and neurofeedback meditation.

  • Manage stress levels

  • Address any hormone imbalances

  • Keep a headache diary to figure out your triggers

Want to see if acupuncture can reduce the intensity and frequency of your headaches or migraines?

Schedule a free 15-minute consultation to see if acupuncture can help your migraines, or book online. If you have any questions, please get in touch with us.


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