Exploring Acupuncture for Migraine Prevention and Relief

Western medicine focuses on medication, surgery or science to fix a problem; Eastern medicine focuses more on providing the body with the tools it needs to fix itself. The premise for many alternative therapies and modalities come from the Eastern philosophy: mind, body and environment work together to keep a person well or make a person sick; one cannot be treated without the other.

East Meets West with Alternative Medical Therapies

One popular alternative therapy is making its way into mainstream Western medicine: acupuncture.

Acupuncture is a physical therapy that involves the subcutaneous or dermis level insertion of thin needle rods into specific acupuncture points in the body and then gently stimulating them with heat, movement, sound or vibration. The premise is that movement and vibration of the acupuncture needles helps the energy in the body flow better, to stimulate healing, circulation of blood and oxygen and energy through the places in the body that control certain reactions of the body.

I’ve seen video of the acupuncture procedures, and I’ve watched an acupuncture therapy in person at a local chiropractor’s office, and I realize the needles are tiny and they are only inserted subcutaneously. But they are still needles! I’m not so scared of needles… am I? I have an appointment scheduled in the near future, so we shall soon see.

Acupuncture Needling Procedure for Migraine Pain

Because, as a Time Magazine article on migraine headache research indicates, migraines are believed to be caused by the dilation of blood vessels in the head, using acupuncture to treat migraine pain while it is happening by placing acupuncture needles in or near the head area might actually worsen a migraine headache or at least worsen the sensation of pain associated with a migraine headache.

According to Cathy Wong, ND, CNS, who is a naturopathic doctor who performs acupuncture, acupuncture used during a migraine headache to help reduce migraine pain involves acupuncture needling of the arms and torso, with the hope of increasing circulation below the neck, so as to decrease blood flow and circulation above the neck, thus reducing the dilation of the blood vessels that might be causing the migraine pain. Dr. Wong does note, however, that there is not much conclusive research as to the effectiveness of acupuncture for treatment of pain relief during a migraine.

Does Acupuncture for Migraine Prevention Work?

There is research and anecdotal evidence that properly performed acupuncture stimulation can help prevent migraine headaches. When used in conjunction with other treatment methods, both alternative and traditional, it does seem possible that some migraines can be prevented.

My best friend, Lynn, is terrified of needles, but she also suffers from severe, debilitating migraine headaches. She currently takes two types of medication, one to help prevent migraine headaches and another one to reduce the severity of the migraine headache once it starts. Even with both medications, she sometimes has what the doctors call “breakthrough migraine headaches” that take her out of commission for hours, sometimes days.

Lynn’s medical doctor discussed alternative therapies with her, such as relaxation, stress reduction, avoiding alcohol, keeping the body at a steady temperature, meditation and medication. Other things that can cause migraines include certain foods, smells and body hormones. When she asked her medical doctor about acupuncture as a possible treatment or preventative, his answer was, “It couldn’t hurt any.”

Does Acupuncture Treatment for Migraines Hurt?

That’s ultimately the most important part about acupuncture: It doesn’t hurt to try it. I mean that both literally and figuratively. Acupuncture, when properly preformed in a clean and sterile environment, can’t really do any harm to most people. Of course, it’s always important to consult with your physician or health care practitioner before using alternative therapies, including acupuncture.

Secondly, the needling part of acupuncture doesn’t hurt! As terrified as Lynn is of needles, and as much as I don’t really like them either, the needling part of acupuncture doesn’t hurt. In fact, it’s likely you won’t even feel it, but if you do, it’s nothing more than a slight tingle. Some people might feel a warming, calming sensation too. I’ll learn more during my appointment next month, but I’ve already had one test needle inserted into my forearm, and I couldn’t even feel it.

How Does Acupuncture Prevent Migraines?

Acupuncture is believed to help prevent migraines as part of a complete lifestyle change. That is, along with stress reduction, massage, relaxation and meditation, acupuncture helps with energy flow, stress reduction, tension relief, and muscle relaxation, all of which are known to help decrease the frequency and severity of migraine headaches and headache pain.

The good news: Lynn, and other migraine headache sufferers, can combine both the alternative and traditional therapies for the best results.

That’s one of the great things about acupuncture: It allows patients to continue using their traditional therapies, or medications, for migraine headaches while trying acupuncture for healing or treatment. Acupuncture doesn’t interfere in any way with a medication regimen or traditional medical treatments. Even some insurance plans, such as Acucare and others, as well as MediCal now pay for some acupuncture treatment for certain conditions, including migraine headaches, as a preventative therapy.

Check with insurance carriers for their coverage and then find a local provider. Be sure the acupuncture clinic or practitioner is clean, uses new needles for each acupuncture treatment, and is properly certified through the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, or through a state acupuncture certifying or licensing board in your state.