Recent advances in treating and preventing migraines with new drugs have created a “treatment revolution” in migraine therapy. But a more ancient technique may work even better, according to a small study recently published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).
Researchers in China say acupuncture was up to four times more effective than a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) in reducing attacks of episodic migraine without aura.
The study involved 147 migraine patients treated at seven hospitals in China from 2016 to 2018. The patients were divided into three groups; with one group getting 20 sessions of manual acupuncture, another group getting sham (fake) acupuncture, and the third group getting “usual care” that included use of the NSAID diclofenac.
By the end of the study, patients who received acupuncture were having 2.3 fewer migraine attacks a month, compared to 0.4 and 1.6 fewer attacks for the usual care and sham groups, respectively.
“In this study in acupuncture naive patients with episodic migraine without aura, 20 sessions of manual acupuncture produced a relatively long lasting reduction in migraine days and migraine attacks compared with sham acupuncture and usual care,” researchers reported. “Overall, the therapeutic effects in the manual acupuncture group occurred earlier, were larger, and might last longer.”
According to one migraine expert, the study shows that acupuncture can be a “useful additional tool” in migraine therapy.
"We now have good evidence that acupuncture is an effective treatment for episodic migraine," writes Heather Angus-Leppan, MD, a neurologist at the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust, in a BMJeditorial. "(The study) helps to move acupuncture from having an unproven status in complementary medicine to an acceptable evidence-based treatment."
The study drew a mixed reaction from readers in The Daily Mail.
“Great if it works for you, but it did absolutely nothing for me except wasted money I could Ill afford,” one poster wrote.
“Unfortunately, never worked for me. But good for those who it did. Migraines are a debilitating thing to have,” said another.
“I suffered weekly migraines for decades before trying acupuncture, given by a lady who trained for years in China. After the first session the migraines stopped completely for around 20 years. When they recurred, I tried acupuncture again, from the same lady, and it had no effect at all. I'd still say it's really worth giving it a go,” wrote another poster.
“I had severe and frequent migraines as a teenager - the doctors tried everything from beta blockers to a dairy free diet. Acupuncture was the only thing that really worked - it broke the cycle and my migraines became less severe and more infrequent,” another poster said. “Now I rarely have a migraine at all and if I get a headache using pressure points really helps. It worked for me but may not work for everyone.”
Migraine affects about a billion people worldwide and 36 million adults in the United States, according to the American Migraine Foundation. In addition to headache pain, migraine can also cause nausea, vomiting, blurriness or visual disturbances, and sensitivity to light and sound.
As many as 3 million Americans receive acupuncture treatments, most often for relief of chronic pain. While there is little consensus in the medical community about the effectiveness of acupuncture, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) recently said it would start covering acupuncture for Medicare patients with chronic low back pain.