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Needling Away Your Headaches With Acupuncture

Do you suffer from chronic headaches? Acupuncture treatment may help.

Studies show that this ancient Chinese healing technique may help relieve many types of pain, including some headaches.

According to traditional Chinese medicine, health is achieved by keeping the body in a balanced state. Practitioners believe disease is due to an imbalance of "qi" (pronounced "chee"), or energy force in the body. A blockage in the flow of qi, they say, can lead to disease and pain. In good health, qi is believed to flow freely through certain pathways known as meridians. Acupuncture points are found along these meridians.

What is involved?
Acupuncture involves inserting fine needles into specific points on your meridians. Stimulating these points is thought to aid the body's natural healing abilities.

The needles used are tiny and hair-thin. Most people feel little or no pain when they are inserted. Some say they feel energized by treatment, while others feel relaxed.

If you struggle with chronic headaches, acupuncture therapy may help. Among complementary treatments for pain management, acupuncture is one of the most widely used and well accepted by doctors.

Effect on migraines and tension headaches
Results from 33 trials involving over 6,000 people compared the use of acupuncture to medication. The findings showed that:

* Almost half of those treated with acupuncture plus pain medicine said it at least halved the number of tension and migraine headaches they got over an average of three months.
* Those treated with only acupuncture (no drugs) had fewer tension and migraine headaches than people who were given medication. They also reported fewer side effects.
* Another long-term study of people with headaches showed that acupuncture treatments led to fewer missed work days, less need for medication and fewer visits to the doctor.

When "fake" or "sham" acupuncture was compared to acupuncture done in the correct manner, the results were mixed:

* Several studies were done for prevention of muscle contraction headaches. They showed that people who were given the correct treatment had statistically fewer headaches than those who got the fake acupuncture.
* The results were not as clear for migraine headache sufferers. People in both groups - those who got the real and the "sham" acupuncture - reported about the same reduction in headaches.

Experts say the pain relief from the sham treatment may be due to the hands-on, repetitive stimulus of the needles. It may also be because people believe acupuncture works. This is known as the placebo effect.

Is acupuncture safe?
Talk to your doctor about acupuncture before you try it. It is usually safe in the hands of a licensed and qualified practitioner. Soreness or pain could result if the needle isn't placed properly, is defective or if you move during the treatment. If not done properly, you could also suffer an infection or damage to internal organs. Always be sure that the practitioner is using an unopened set of sterile, disposable, one-use needles.

Acupuncture therapy is becoming widely available. You may find it offered at your local hospital, at a pain center or through a neurologist. Ask your doctor for a referral. As with any treatment, talk to your doctor if your symptoms persist or get worse after this therapy.


* American Academy of Medical Acupuncture. NCCAM acupuncture information resources. Accessed: 02/23/2009

* National Guideline Clearinghouse. Assessment and management of chronic pain. Accessed: 02/23/2009

* Linde K, Allais G, Brinkhaus B, Manheimer E, Vickers A, White AR. Acupuncture for tension-type headache. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2009. Accessed: 02/23/2009

* Patel G, Euler D, Audette JF. Complementary and alternative medicine for noncancer pain. Medical Clinics of North America. 2007;91(1):141-167. Accessed: 02/23/2009

* National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. An introduction to acupuncture. Accessed: 02/23/2009

* Jena S, Witt CM, Brinkhaus B, Wegscheider K, Willich SN. Acupuncture in patients with headaches. Cephalalgia. 2008;28(9):969-979. Accessed: 02/23/2009