Can acupuncture reduce chronic tension-type headaches? Scientists think so

What a relief!
Deena Theresa
A person receiving acupuncture treatment.AndreyPopov/iStock

A study published in the online issue of Neurology®, the American Academy of Neurology medical journal, has revealed that acupuncture could provide respite to people with chronic tension-type headaches. 

"Tension-type headaches are one of the most common types of headaches and people who have a lot of these headaches may be looking for alternatives to medication," study author Ying Li, MD, Ph.D., of Chengdu University of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Chengdu, China, said in a statement. "Our study found that acupuncture reduces the average number of headache days per month for those struggling with these painful and disruptive headache attacks."

The ancient practice of the traditional Chinese medicine — penetrating the skin with thin, solid, metallic needles that are activated through gentle and specific movements of the practitioner's hands or with electrical stimulation. This treatment is known to be effective for a variety of conditions, including migraine, addiction, tennis elbow, fibromyalgia, and lower back pain.

Traditional Chinese practitioners believed that the human body has more than 2,000 acupuncture points connected by pathways or meridians. These pathways create an energy flow through the body and are primarily responsible for overall health. It is understood that disruption of the energy flow can cause disease. When acupuncture is applied to certain points, it is thought to improve the flow, thus improving health.

Participants had chronic tension-type headaches for an average of 11 years

A tension-type headache is the most common type of headache. It involves a pressing or tightening feeling on both sides of the head with mild to moderate intensity. These headaches are not worsened by physical activity nor include nausea. Tension-type headaches are considered chronic when they happen at least 15 days per month.

The study drew on 218 people diagnosed with chronic tension-type headaches. They had chronic tension-type headaches for an average of 11 years and had 22 days per month with headaches on average.

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Participants were randomly assigned to two groups - those receiving true acupuncture and those who would be treated with superficial acupuncture.

Actual acupuncture treatments involve achieving a deqi sensation, which consists in placing and moving a needle in the body to reach a tingling, numbness, or heaviness feeling. The superficial treatments had a lesser depth in the body to avoid achieving the deqi sensation.

Both groups received two or three sessions per week, totaling 20 sessions, for two months and were followed for an additional six months.

The headache days decreased from 20 days per month to seven days

The study saw that 68 percent of the people receiving true acupuncture reported a reduction of at least 50 percent in the monthly number of headache days compared to 50 percent of those who received superficial acupuncture. The participants had clinic visits every four weeks and used headache diaries to record their symptoms and use of acute medications. 

Researchers noted that the number of monthly headache days gradually decreased after treatment in both those who received actual and superficial acupuncture treatments.

While those who received true acupuncture saw their headache days decrease from 20 days per month at the study to seven days per month by the end of the study. For those who received superficial acupuncture, headache days decreased from 23 days per month at the beginning of the study to 12 days per month at the end of the study.

The side effects from the treatment were mild and did not require treatment.

"While this study showed that acupuncture can reduce headaches, more research is needed to determine the longer-term effectiveness of acupuncture and how it compares to other treatment options," said Li. "In comparing treatment options, cost-effectiveness is another important factor to evaluate."

The researchers have cautioned that the study was conducted in one hospital, so the results may not apply to all populations.


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