Living with chronic headaches can be a challenge. Even mild ones, if they persist they can disrupt everyday life, interfere with work, sleep, family life, rest and of course mood. There are several different types of headaches and every individual experiences them differently, ranging from an occasional mild disturbance to a debilitating pathology.
Acupuncture has been shown by clinical research to alleviate, offer relief and prevent headaches. The UK National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends acupuncture as a treatment to be considered for certain types of headaches (tension-type headache and migraine). There are several potential physiological mechanisms that mediate the therapeutic effect of acupuncture: stimulation of the central nervous system that affect the pain processes in the brain, endorphin release, reducing inflammation and increase of local microcirculation.
The goal of the acupuncture treatment is to reduce the frequency and intensity of the headaches, to reduce the reliance to painkillers and to prevent further attacks. If the pain has been around for years it may need longer to work with it. In most cases the recommended duration of the treatment is 5-8 weeks. The frequency of the sessions should be higher in the beginning (twice a week) and after a significant amelioration of the symptoms treatment takes place once a week. Typically improvement starts after the 3rd session.
Before starting the treatment it is important to describe the details of the attack (e.g. type, duration and frequency of pain), to check if the headaches coincide with other symptoms (e.g. photophobia), to identify possible triggers (e.g. alcohol consumption, certain food, lack of sleep, stress, menstruation). Keeping a diary with these observations can be very helpful. If for example the headaches are related to insomnia, the latter needs to be addressed simultaneously in the treatment.
The benefits of acupuncture, when compared to pain killers, are long lasting and with minor to zero side effects. Another advantage is that acupuncture therapy can be combined with classical treatments such as painkillers or physical therapy without compromising them, offering the patient a degree of flexibility in managing the disorder.
When a headache is severe and acute, a proper medical diagnosis by a neurologist is crucial before any treatment is initiated, in order to exclude underlying conditions that need to be urgently treated.
For a review of the clinical evidence for acupuncture in the role of treating headaches, check the following links