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Headaches & Migraines

80% of UK adults suffer with headaches, being more prevalent in women. It is one of the most frequent reasons for medical consultations. The origin of tension-type headaches is still unclear. Migraines manifest as recurring attacks, usually lasting for 4 to 72 hours & involving pain of moderate to severe intensity. 

Acupuncture has had a good profile for both migraine & tension headaches since the Cochrane reviews of 2009. Subsequently it came to be recommended by NICE in its 2012 guideline.

In 2016 the Cochrane review team updated both of these headache reviews. They found the evidence in respect of migraine to have improved since 2009. Acupuncture is effective in helping to reduce migraine frequency & is at least as good as prophylactic drugs.

For tension-type headaches there was scarcely any new data & the original conclusion stands – acupuncture is an effective preventive treatment. Other systematic reviews have similar findings & cost effectiveness has been established. More recent trials provide support for longer, as well as shorter-term benefits & confirm that acupuncture is a more desirable option than botulinum (Botox) injection. As well as prevention it may also alleviate symptoms in acute attacks, & as well as relieving symptoms it can also increase coping mechanisms.

There have been more than 80 NHS publications since 2005 recommending acupuncture for both tension headaches & migraine, and many more worldwide.

In general, research shows that acupuncture activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which initiates the relaxation response, thus promoting physical & emotional wellbeing. Stimulation of certain acupuncture points has been shown to affect areas of the brain that are known to reduce sensitivity to pain & stress.

It is vital that you report any sudden, new onset headache or any worsening of headaches or other symptoms to your doctor. Even if you frequently get headaches but you have a new symptom, e.g. fever, neck stiffness, confusion, other neurological symptoms, your doctor should be informed so that they can test & provide an accurate diagnosis.

Symptom Guide

Tension headaches:

  • Responsive to acupuncture

  • These are generally frequently occurring headaches affecting the head & neck, often with associated stress symptoms such as tense shoulders and muscles. These headaches, while strong, are not as severe as Migraine or Cluster headaches. They generally last approximately half an hour to one hour.


Migraine headaches:

  • Responsive to acupuncture

  • These are typically one sided headaches & can be associated with one or more of the following symptoms:- facial numbness & tingling, flashing lights preceding headache, photophobia (aversion to light), sudden loss of vision. It is possible to have migraines without a headache.


Cluster Headaches:

  • Responsive to acupuncture

  • These are the most severe of all headaches. These extreme headaches affect one eye, generally with stabbing/boring pain. These headaches come in clusters so that they happen frequently over a course of days, weeks or months, & then suddenly vanish for prolonged periods before returning. They can be accompanied by the following symptoms:- extreme restlessness & agitation, one-sided reversible facial paralysis, watering eyes, extreme mood disturbance (including suicidal thoughts).


Chronic daily headaches:

  • Responsive to acupuncture

  • These can be chronic tension headaches or chronic migraine. They happen every day or every other day for weeks, months or years.


Hormonal headaches:

  • Responsive to acupuncture

  • These headaches are associated with the menstrual cycle, usually just before or after the period. These are also associated with the contraceptive pill, in which case you should report this to your doctor and discuss alternatives.


Post trauma headache:

  • Responsive to acupuncture (check with doctor first to rule out serious complications)

  • A trauma is any bang to the head. Besides accidents or acts of violence, this can also happen as a result of banging one’s head against a car door, kitchen cupboard etc. These headaches are often associated with loss of concentration & difficulty getting on with normal chores. One must rule out any damage to the skull or blood vessels.

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