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Wenche Chung, MD & Kuoting Lee, L.Ac


If you visit an emergency department (ED) on any given day, you will undoubtedly notice that a large number of chief complaints are headaches.

Due to the diversity of causes that lead to headaches, an accurate diagnosis and management plan can be difficult to obtain.

As a general rule of thumb, a headache is a benign symptom that stems from sleep deprivation, fatigue, or drastic weather changes. However, it can also be the result of more severe conditions. Moreover, consistent headaches can negatively impact your quality of life.

In this article, we will cover the most common types of headaches, then switch gears to the unknown role of acupuncture in relieving these aches.

Tension headaches

Tension headaches are extremely prevalent and result from the contraction of the skull muscles. They present as dull pain localized in the front or back of the head.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), tension headaches affect around 5% of the population.

Tension headaches arise from extreme fatigue, poor sleep, extreme temperatures, and caffeine withdrawal. The good news is tension headaches rarely require any special medical treatment. However, if conventional medical treatment fails to improve your symptoms, acupuncture can be helpful.

Migraine headaches

Migraine headaches affect children and adults. Interestingly, this type of headache is more prevalent in women compared to men after the age of puberty.

Studies identified a number of risk factors that precipitate migraine headaches. However, the exact causes of migraines are still vague.

One study found that an imbalance in the neurotransmitters of the brain can be a triggering factor of migraine attacks. The main neurotransmitter affected by this imbalance is serotonin. This explains the odd effectiveness of antidepressants in treating migraine headaches. They simply boost the concentration of serotonin in the brain.

Other risk factors include:

Cluster headaches

This type of headache is a bad one! Cluster headaches start abruptly with severe pain. People describe cluster headaches as sharp, burning, or piercing.

The pain can occur on the sides of the head or periorbital (i.e., around the eye).

The intense pain often makes people feel restless and agitated. They may also pace, rock, or bang their heads against the wall.

Other symptoms that accompany cluster headaches include:

Neuroscientists found a link between cluster headaches and unusual electrical activity in the hypothalamus.

Additionally, smoking increases the risk of this type of headache. Finally, having a family member with a history of cluster headaches is also a risk factor.

How acupuncture can relieve your headache pain?

Acupuncture works by restoring the flow of positive energy in the body. This practice also removes the negative energy that’s triggering your pain.

From a physiological perspective, acupuncture stimulates several points in the body, which promotes a healing response. There are numerous zones and pressure points within the human body. Inserting the needles into these points can have dramatic effects on your headache symptoms.

The purpose of inserting the needles is to trigger the sensory nerves that sit beneath your skin. As a result of this stimulation, the brain releases endorphins, which are naturally-occurring painkillers. 

Acupuncture also improves circulation and immune function. As you may know, vasodilation is the primary pathogenesis in migraine patients. Therefore, optimizing the flow of blood and the pressure inside the vessels can dramatically relieve your pain.

Recently, researchers found some compelling evidence that some therapies, such as acupuncture and ultrasound, can help patients with chronic pain.

What does the research say?

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, acupuncture is a reasonable option for people with migraines and tension-type headaches. However, you need to make sure that your acupuncturist is well-trained and uses sterile needles.

In one study, Chinese researchers recruited 218 participants with a history of chronic headaches. Most of these participants have been dealing with headaches for more than a decade. On average, each person has episodes of headaches 21 days a month.

To evaluate the effectiveness of acupuncture in the management of headaches, researchers divided participants into two groups:

In a duration of 2 months, participants underwent 20 sessions of acupuncture. They were also followed for 6 more months to assess the improvement of their symptoms.

After 16 weeks of the experiment, 68.2% of participants from the first group showed impressive improvement in their headache symptoms. Conversely, only 48.1% of the second reported any improvement.

At the follow-up (6 months), 68.2% of the group that received true acupuncture reported fewer headaches per month. This frequency decrease was only present in 50% of the second group.

Other methods to treat headaches

Aside from acupuncture techniques, your therapist may also be able to help you by:

Suggesting lifestyle changes and education

As an expert in musculoskeletal manipulation, your acupuncturist deals with endless cases of headaches. Therefore, they have enough experience to help you control your risk factors and prevent the exacerbation of headache episodes.

Depending on your medical history, your acupuncturist will be able to provide you with tailored advice that fits your condition. Not the generic tips listed on every website out there.

Referring you to another healthcare professional and co-managing your case

If your acupuncturist sees that your condition requires specialized medical care, he/she might refer you to a neurologist or other healthcare professional.

Regardless, you might still benefit from receiving both treatments – Medical therapy and acupuncture

Takeaway message

Acupuncture can help you deal with many forms of chronic headaches, especially when conventional treatments have failed.

We hope that this article managed to highlight the crucial role of acupuncture in helping with different types of headaches.

If you have any questions about headaches or acupuncture, feel free to leave a comment in the section below or reach out to us through

Let us know your case history and get the best treatment ever.

By Dr. Kuoting Lee, LAc, DAIM

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