top of page

East to West: Acupuncture for Migraines

East to West: Acupuncture for Migraines

by Grace Ganel

If you’ve ever had a migraine, you know just how bad they can be! People with migraine headaches experience such severe symptoms that they are often unable to function during an acute episode. Migraines affect 16.6% of adults in the US, and head pain is the fifth leading cause of visits to the emergency room in the US (Goadsby and Sprenger, 2010). Fortunately, acupuncture is well-studied treatment which can greatly benefit folks with migraine headaches.

Vickers, Rees, Zollman, McCarney, Smith, Ellis, Fisher, and Haslen (2004) conducted a large (401 participants), randomized controlled trial of acupuncture for migraine headache. The researchers recruited patients from primary care offices and manipulated whether the physicians told their patients to get acupuncture in addition to continuing standard care, or to only receive standard care. The purpose of the study was to determine the effects of acupuncture on migraine frequency and intensity as acupuncture is used in practice, examining the pragmatic effectiveness of acupuncture as an adjunct treatment. Many studies only test one-size-fits-all treatments, which fail to take into account individual variations in presentation and diagnosis. This is simply not the way acupuncture is practiced!

Participants in the acupuncture group received standard care in addition to up to twelve acupuncture treatments over a three month period. Those in the control group only received standard care. Outcomes were measured through a daily headache diary to track medication use and headache severity. Mean headache severity was significantly lower in the acupuncture group than in the control group at the twelve month followup. A significant difference in clinically relevant improvement in headache frequency (defined by the International Headache Society as 50% or greater reduction in headache days) and score (defined in the protocol for the study as 35% or greater improvement in headache score from baseline) was observed at twelve months but not at three months, favoring the acupuncture group. The acupuncture group also experienced greater improvement in quality of life, went to the doctor less, stayed home sick less, and used less medication than the control group. The researchers concluded that when acupuncture is used as an adjunct to standard care in patients with persistent chronic headache, patients experience fewer headaches and headaches are less severe than with standard care alone. The study demonstrated that acupuncture has a persisting, clinically relevant impact on individuals with headache disorders (Vickers, Rees, Zollman, McCarney, Smith, Ellis, Fisher, and Haslen, 2004).


Goadsby, P.J. & Sprenger, T., (2010). Current practice and future directions in the prevention and acute management of migraine. The Lancet, 9. doi:10.1016/S1474-4422(10)70005-3

Vickers, A.J., Rees, R. W., Zollman, C. E., McCarney, R., Smith, C., Ellis, N., Fisher, P., & Haslen, R. V., (2004). Acupuncture for chronic headaches in primary care: large, pragmatic, randomised trial. BMJ. 328(7442):744. doi:10.1136/bmj.38029.421863.EB

bottom of page