Acupuncture for Tension Headaches: What to Expect

You’ve tried it all: drinking a full glass of water, popping magnesium supplements, rubbing essential oils on your temples. Chronic headaches are difficult to relive if you can’t pinpoint the cause, and “pinpointing” might be the very thing you need. New research finds that chronic acupuncture — a form of alternative medicine in which needles are inserted into the body — is an effective treatment for headache tensions.

The news comes from a study published in Neurologywhich explored the relationship between acupuncture and headache relief.

What is acupuncture?

Acupuncture is a pain-relief practice which involves breaking specific areas of the skin, usually pressure points, with thin, sterile needles to help stimulate them. An acupuncturist may further stimulate these areas manually (with gentle manipulation using their hands) or electrically (with small electrodes.) When electrodes are involved, the practice is often called electroacupuncture.

“Acupuncture has been used for thousands of years as a part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for the treatment of several ailments, including headaches,” says Gudrun Snyder, DAc, MSAc, LAc, founder of Moon Rabbit Acupuncture.

Has research shown that acupuncture is an effective treatment?

The recent Neurology study found that acupuncture is effective for tension headaches. (Tension headaches are those that cause pressure or a tight feeling on both sides of the head.) In fact, 68 percent of study participants who received true acupuncture had fewer “headache days” for at least a month and a half. About 50 percent of participants who received superficial acupuncture also reported fewer headache days.

For clarity, true acupuncture involves inserting needles deep enough to create a “deqi” (pronounced duh-chee) sensation. Deqi is a word that describes a tingling, numbness, or heavy feeling. On the other hand, superficial acupuncture involves inserting needles into the same areas, just not as deeply. (So, this study shows that even superficial acupuncture may help reduce headaches, though receiving the true procedure from a certified practitioner is highly recommended.)

In addition, previous studies have supported the theory that acupuncture relieves headaches, including episodic and chronic ones. “A 2016 Cochrane Review [pointed to] scientific evidence [which] suggests that acupuncture may not only reduce migraine headache frequency but also prevent them from happening,” says Dr. Snyder.

Why might acupuncture relieve headaches?

Scientists are still working to determine the link between acupuncture and pain relief, but there may be several reasons that it works.

“From a biomedical standpoint, acupuncture may accomplish [pain relief] through a number of mechanisms,” Dr. Snyder says. That includes:

  • Increasing blood circulation.
  • Stimulating the body to release pain-relieving neurotransmitters signals, potentially blocking inappropriate pain, and relaxing the muscles.

“From an eastern medicine perspective, acupuncture works to smooth the flow of the qi (energy) and return the body to balance,” she adds.

Dr. Snyder also points out that acupuncture may treat a variety of headaches. “At Moon Rabbit Acupuncture, we have treated people who suffer from migraines, tension headaches, cluster headaches, sinus headaches, hormone related migraines, and others with success. We strongly recommend that if you suffer from headaches, you find a board-certified licensed acupuncturist near you … Many acupuncturists even take insurance, as we do.”

How long does it take to experience relief after acupuncture?

The short answer: It depends. “Some patients experience immediate relief during their acupuncture session. Others may take up to 24 hours later to feel the effects,” says Dr. Snyder. “The severity, how long someone has been experiencing headaches, as well as the origin of the headache (stress related, muscular, idiopathic, etc.) will all determine the number of sessions a patient may need.”

The bottom line? “It may take only a single session to experience relief or multiple. Some patients may need to schedule regular acupuncture treatments, such as every few weeks, to prevent migraines from returning.”

Is there anyone who should not receive acupuncture?

“Typically, acupuncture is suitable for nearly everyone,” Dr. Snyder explains. “However, patients with an AICD [automatic implantable cardioverter-defibrillator] should avoid acupuncture that uses electrical stimulation. Additionally, those who suffer from psychosis or delusions may not be suitable [recipients].”

And what about the rumor that people on blood thinners should avoid the practice? “This is not necessarily true,” she says. “If you see an experienced licensed acupuncturist, this should not be a problem. And if you ever have questions related to whether acupuncture is right for you, we encourage you to reach out. We are always happy to help!”

If you have suffered from headaches for some time, it might be worth a shot. And if you’re worried about pain from the needles, practitioners also state that the technique shouldn’t be painful. If it is, tell your acupuncturist, who can adjust the needles or choose other pressure points. You might find that one or more sessions relieve not only headaches, but also back pain, poor sleep health, and even allergies.

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