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  • Writer's pictureOne Elephant

“pain in the neck: how acupuncture can help with headaches”

This weather is not helping anyone who suffers from headaches. The change in atmospheric pressure can trigger headaches and migraines. Let’s talk about acupuncture for headaches.

What are headaches and how common are they?

Headaches are one of the most common conditions that I treat in my practice and it makes sense as headaches are among the most common disorders of the nervous system. It is estimated that 50% of Canadians will have one headache in the last year. Roughly 4% of population suffers from headaches on 15 or more days every month. For those of you that have had headaches, they just suck the life out of you. Nothing is worse than your head pounding or the feeling of the jaws of life clamping around your skull. To make things worse, headaches can be accompanied by nasal congestion, sensitivity to light and sounds as well as a feeling that makes you sick to your stomach. As if dealing with a throbbing head wasn’t enough.

What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture for headache relief has been around for ages, over 2,000 years old to be somewhat specific. Acupuncture involves the insertion of needles into specific points on your body.

How does acupuncture help with headaches?

Two schools of thought: Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and bio-medical acupuncture. TCM aims to restore the flow of positive energy (called “qi”) through the meridians (there are a number of meridians, i.e. 12 tendinomuscular meridians, 12 divergent meridians, 12 principal meridians). When the energy is stuck or stagnant in a meridian, there can be disruption in energy leading to pain and illness. It is believed that with the stimulation of these points through acupuncture, there is movement in the energy, reducing pain and dispelling illness. Bio-medical acupuncture is the insertion of needles into different trigger points in the muscles of the body. These points are typically near nerves and help stimulate them to release hormones, such as endorphins, that help your body modify pain. The movement of these endorphins through your body help relieve headache pain.

Does acupuncture work for headache pain?

This is what you really want to know isn’t it. You all know my love for research, right? I truly believe in the importance of health research to help us reach new heights in evidence-based medicine. In the last decade, good clinical research has provided positive outcomes for the use of acupuncture in headaches. For all the science geeks, this means that there is the use of an acceptable control (sham acupuncture – which is a device that has a retractable acupuncture needle that makes contact with the skin but does not penetrate) along with well-designed, large scale randomized control trials (gold standard study design).

A meta-analysis, is a study where the data from individual studies are combined to present one result. So, for example if we there are five individual studies, completed in the years of 2013, 2014 and 2016 with 800, 900, 1050 participants respectively, a meta-analysis would combine the participants for a total of 1940 participants which is better for crunching numbers and reporting results. In 2012, a meta-analysis of 23 high quality randomized controlled trials of acupuncture for pain conditions, involving roughly 18, 000 participants, concluded that acupuncture was better than sham (fake) acupuncture for headaches and the benefit was similar to that of non-opiate pain relievers (etc. Advil). A more recent meta-analysis of 22 clinical trials involving 4985 people found that headaches decreased by 50% or more in more than half of the study population! This means that someone who had 30 headaches in a year was now reporting only 15 headaches and that is monumental for a headache sufferer.

Okay – so now we’ve established that acupuncture is just as good as non-opiate pain relievers which is great for individuals who cannot take pain medication due to a sensitive gut or simply do not want to take medication. The added benefit to acupuncture is that is has an excellent safety profile, meaning that few side effects occur when treatment is provided by a trained practitioner.

Risks of Acupuncture

The risks of acupuncture are low and include soreness, minor bleeding or bruising where the needles are inserted. I will always use single-use, disposable, sterile needles, so that the risk of infection is minimal.

There are some individuals that are at a higher risk for complications with acupuncture:

If you have a bleeding disorder. The changes of bleeding or bruising from acupuncture needles increase in individuals with a bleeding disorder or those that are taking blood thinners.

If you have a pacemaker. Electro-acupuncture is the use of mild electrical pulses to the acupuncture needles that may interfere with pacemaker’s operation.

If you are pregnant. Certain points on the body, if stimulated with acupuncture needles, can stimulate labor. Unless you’re ready to give the eviction notice, it is best to steer clear from these points during pregnancy.

Alternate Treatment

Acupuncture is a non drug option that can help chronic headache sufferers avoid the use of potentially harmful medications, particularly opiates that are accompanied with a risk of substance use disorder and more importantly medication headaches. Health care providers should spend time educating themselves on alternative, nondrug options like acupuncture and should seek out answers to patients’ concerns or point them in the right direction.


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