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30 Apr 20246 min

Acupuncture: an effective remedy for headaches and migraines

Scientific studies and clinical data confirm the effectiveness of medical acupuncture in reducing the frequency, duration and intensity of headaches and migraines.

In recent years, research into the treatment of headaches and migraine has made significant progress, highlighting the efficacy of non-conventional methods, including acupuncture. In this context, this article aims to explore the effectiveness of acupuncture in reducing the frequency, intensity and duration of these disorders, based on clinical data and scientific studies. 

Primary headaches: incidence and impact

Primary headache disorders, which include migraine, tension-type headache (TTH) and chronic headache, have a worldwide incidence of 46%. Migraine alone affects around 11% of the world's population, with a significant proportion of patients reporting moderate to severe pain and reduced functional capacity. This underlines the urgent need for effective treatments to alleviate not only the physical discomfort, but also the associated socio-economic impact. 
According to the Global Burden of Disease study, migraine is the sixth leading cause of years lost to disability worldwide (WHO, 2016).
Migraine has been ranked among the top 20 causes of disability worldwide (Leonardi et al., 2005).

How does acupuncture help headaches and migraines?

Acupuncture can help reduce pain by acting on two systems in the body. The first is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the second is the endogenous opioid system, both of which are involved in the body's response to stress and pain. Acupuncture stimulates the release of opioid substances in the brain, which can relieve pain. Animal studies have shown that it can also reduce the activity of a migraine-related protein (the CGRP peptide) and improve the way the body deals with pain. Current research therefore suggests that acupuncture can influence brain neurochemistry, stimulating the release of endorphins and other neurotransmitters that can reduce pain perception. In addition, it is hypothesized that acupuncture may help reduce inflammation and improve blood circulation, two important factors in the pathogenesis of headaches and migraines.

Efficacy of acupuncture: clinical data and scientific studies

The scientific literature on acupuncture as a treatment for headaches and migraine is vast and growing. A review of several randomized controlled trials shows that patients who received acupuncture treatments reported a significant reduction in the frequency, duration and intensity of headache episodes, compared with control groups who received placebo treatments or no treatment at all. These results suggest that acupuncture could play a crucial role in the treatment of chronic headaches, offering an alternative or complement to conventional methods.

Systematic examinations:
  • More than 20 reviews have examined the effects of acupuncture on headaches, focusing on migraine and CTT. High-quality evidence suggests that acupuncture is more effective and safer than medication or sham acupuncture in the treatment of migraine. 

Randomized controlled trials:

  • A substantial body of research, including over 100 publications based on clinical trials, examines the efficacy of acupuncture in the management of headaches. The results of the most recent and relevant trials, including those not included in the most recent systematic reviews, confirm the efficacy of acupuncture in bringing significant and clinically relevant benefits to patients suffering from chronic headaches, tension-type headaches and migraines, both in terms of reducing the frequency of attacks and the intensity of pain.
  • Safety and efficacy: a study carried out in 2020, which included nine randomized controlled trials involving 1,484 patients, suggests that acupuncture is more effective and much safer than medication for migraine prophylaxis.

International recommendations:
  • The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence recommends a series of 10 acupuncture sessions for the prophylactic treatment of migraine.
  • The World Health Organization has also highlighted the importance of traditional medicine, such as acupuncture, for the management of chronic and non-communicable diseases at a time of rising healthcare costs, recognizing headaches and migraine as one of the most cost-effective conditions.
  • In Italy, acupuncture has received further therapeutic recognition by being included in the Istituto Superiore di Sanità's national system guidelines for the treatment of pain, demonstrating acupuncture's superior efficacy over drugs in the prevention of chronic and episodic headaches, with a high safety profile. 

The role of acupuncture in preventing headaches and migraines

In addition to treating acute pain, acupuncture has also been evaluated for its ability to prevent the onset of headaches and migraines. Longitudinal studies have shown that patients undergoing regular acupuncture cycles reported a significant reduction in the frequency and intensity of headache episodes, and in the duration of individual attacks, suggesting a long-term preventive effect. These findings are particularly relevant for chronic migraine sufferers, for whom conventional therapeutic options may be limited or associated with undesirable side effects.
Prophylaxis, or preventive treatment, plays a crucial role in the management of chronic headaches by aiming to reduce the frequency, intensity and duration of headache episodes before they occur. This approach aims not only to improve patients' quality of life, but also to reduce dependence on analgesic drugs, which can have undesirable side effects and contribute to the phenomenon of headache overuse.
The studies included showed that acupuncture, compared with placebo controls or no treatment, led to a significant reduction in the frequency and duration of headache attacks and in pain intensity. Furthermore, it was observed that acupuncture can offer long-term benefits, confirming the importance of integrating it into a multimodal therapeutic approach for the preventive management of headaches.

Conclusions and future prospects

In summary, the updated literature review confirms the efficacy of acupuncture as a prophylactic and complementary or alternative treatment for headaches, including migraine and tension-type headaches. The results underline the need to consider acupuncture in treatment plans, particularly for patients seeking alternatives to conventional medication or who do not respond adequately to such treatments. 
The use of acupuncture as a preventive method and complementary treatment also has significant implications for reducing health-related costs and healthcare expenditure. Reducing the frequency, duration and intensity of headache attacks through acupuncture can reduce the need for analgesic medication and emergency medical visits, contributing to an overall reduction in medical costs for patients and the healthcare system. In addition, by improving patients' quality of life, this approach can reduce sick leave and increase productivity, which also has social and professional benefits. Thus, integrating acupuncture into treatment protocols can represent a cost-effective strategy, strengthening the case for its widespread adoption in chronic headache management.

The Sinomedica method

Sinomedica is the largest provider of medical acupuncture in Switzerland and one of the largest in Europe. It has one of the largest clinical databases of acupuncture therapies and expertise, which, combined with the latest scientific discoveries, guarantee the best patient-centered therapy. 
Contact the center nearest to you and discover the potential of an approach based on many years of clinical experience, thousands of treatments and numerous scientific studies, which meets patients' needs and guarantees efficacy and results. 

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Dr. med. Francesco Giombini

Dr. med. Francesco Giombini, Sinomedica Editorial Scientific Manager, is a Specialist in Anesthesia-Pain Therapy and Traditional Chinese Medicine & Acupuncture. He's an expert in Preventive Medicine and Antiaging. He has been practicing acupuncture since 2009. He's currently practicing as an acupuncturist at Sinomedica centers in Locarno and Lugano. He has a diverse educational background, including degrees in Medicine and Surgery, specialization in Anesthesia and Resuscitation, and training in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture. He is affiliated with various medical organizations in Switzerland.