Two new systematic reviews have found that acupuncture therapy can provide patients who suffer from tension and migraine headache an alternative treatment for their pain. Systematic reviews draw evidence-based conclusions about medical practice after considering both the content and quality of existing trials on a topic.
Tension headaches are the most common headaches, and generally cause infrequent mild to moderate pain, but in a considerable number of patients, tension headaches are so frequent that they require treatment.
Migraine headaches, on the other hand, can be disabling and severe. Accompanying symptoms can include nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light.
Treatment for tension-type and migraine headaches typically consists of over-the-counter or prescription medications, respectively. The aim of the systematic reviews was to determine whether acupuncture is also an effective treatment option for tension and migraine headaches.
Research has shown that certain commonly prescribed medications may have the unintended effect of increasing the frequency of migraine headache attacks. (Prescribed Medications May Increase the Frequency of Migraine Headaches)
Acupuncture involves penetrating the skin with thin, metallic needles at specific points. It is one of the main medical treatments in traditional Chinese medicine, where it came into being more than 2,000 years ago.
Lead reviewer Klaus Linde of the Center for Complementary Medicine Research at the Technical University of Munich said the therapy is popular in his country.
In one of the reviews, Linde and colleagues examined acupuncture for migraine headache treatment and reviewed 22 trials with 4,419 total participants who had received a migraine headache pain diagnosis with or without aura.
Six studies compared acupuncture to no treatment or routine care (with painkillers) only. After three to four months, patients who received acupuncture had fewer headaches.
“The effect over no prophylactic (preventive) treatment and also compared to prophylactic drug treatment proven to be superior to placebo is clearly clinically important,” said Linde.
The reviewers concluded that there is consistent evidence that acupuncture provides additional benefit to treatment of acute migraine headache attacks only or to routine care. They also concluded that for migraine headache patients, placing the needles in the correct points did not seem as relevant, which is contrary to what most acupuncturists believe.
“On average, the studies do not show an effect of acupuncture at correct points over acupuncture at incorrect points,” Linde said. There appeared to be some benefit of pain relief regardless of the insertion points.
In the other review, Linde and his colleagues focused on acupuncture for tension headaches. The researchers evaluated 11 studies that investigated 2,317 participants. The studies compared participants who had undergone acupuncture therapy with those who had no treatment except painkillers for acute headaches, or had a sham therapy, which mimicked “true” acupuncture. Researchers followed the patients for at least eight weeks.
Two large studies that investigated whether adding acupuncture to treatment with painkillers found that those patients who received acupuncture had fewer headaches. Forty-seven percent of patients who received acupuncture reported a decrease in the number of headache days by at least half, compared with 16 percent of patients in the control groups.
Six studies compared true acupuncture to “fake’ acupuncture in which needles were either inserted at incorrect points or did not penetrate the skin. Overall, these studies found slightly better effects in the patients receiving the true acupuncture intervention.
“The response to acupuncture in general seems to be large and clinically relevant,” Linde said.
Berman agreed with the review findings and said patients at his clinic seek acupuncture for the relief from tension headaches and some experience good outcomes.
“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.”
“In Germany, acupuncture is frequently used for headache,” he said. “Most private health insurances, in fact, reimburse for acupuncture, although they cover only about 10 percent of the population.”
The practice has also gained popularity in the United States. A 2002 National Health Interview Survey of complementary and alternative medicine use found that about 8.2 million U.S. adults had ever used acupuncture in their lives, and an estimated 2.1 million had used acupuncture the previous year.
Brian Berman, M.D., director of the University of Maryland Center for Integrative Medicine in Baltimore, confirmed that acupuncture is definitely becoming a more popular treatment option for Americans.
“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,” he said.