July 6, 2022 – Dena Ressler, a New Jersey-based retiree in her 60s, had a “splitting headache” that lasted 3 months. It came with a cough and shortness of breath. After serious medical conditions were ruled out, it was found that her headache was stress-related.
“It was constant, scary, and it didn’t go away,” she recalls.
Ressler is a clarinet player with a band that performs Klezmer music, a traditional genre of the Ashkenazi Jews of Central and Eastern Europe. After weeks of pain, she decided to try acupuncture. And after 3 weeks of regular appointments, the headache disappeared and has not returned.
“Every once in a while, when I’m really tired, I can feel the same pathway of pain in my head – maybe once every month or two – but it’s very slight,” she says.
This wasn’t the first time Ressler had used acupuncture. Several decades ago, when she was in her 30s, she had a severe injury that made her less able to get around.
“It took 18 months to get to where I am now – almost fully functional,” she says. “Although I can no longer ride my bike and I still have to be careful not to overdo things, I can do my own yardwork and was able to return to playing the clarinet.”
Scientific Research Supports Acupuncture
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, acupuncture may be a reasonable option for people with chronic pain (including migraine or tension-type headaches), provided the acupuncturist is experienced, well-trained, and uses sterile needles.
Chinese researchers recently released results of a new study that looked at 218 patients with chronic tension-type headaches. Most had had headaches for 11 years and were having an average of 21 headache days per month.
Patients were randomly divided into two groups. One received “true acupuncture.” The other group received more superficial “sham” acupuncture. Both groups had 20 sessions spread over 2 months and were followed for 6 more months.
More people in the true acupuncture group, vs. the sham group, showed improvement in their headaches: 68.2% of patients in the true acupuncture group had fewer monthly headache days, vs. 48.1% in the sham group after 16 weeks. At 6 months, the true acupuncture group continued to have fewer monthly headaches, compared to the sham group (68.2% vs. 50%, respectively).
“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, PhD, of Chengdu University of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Chengdu, China, said in a news release.
Headaches and Women
“This was a very well-done study,” says Shi-Hong Loh, MD, an acupuncturist with offices in Hoboken and Hackensack, NJ, but it has its limits.
Most people in the study were female (74.5% in the true acupuncture group), and Loh feels the researchers didn’t pay enough attention to the role of gender in headaches and treatment response.
“In my experience, 95% of people who come to me for treatment of headaches are women,” says Loh, who is the former chief of hematology and oncology at St. Mary Hospital in Hoboken. While he is still on staff at St Mary, he now has a private practice in medical acupuncture.
“Women’s headaches are often related to stress in life and are also heavily influenced by hormonal imbalances or changes, such as those that occur during menstruation,” he notes.
The researchers’ selection of acupuncture points was “OK, but not enough, in my opinion, since women have points in other areas,” says Loh. “If I were treating a woman with a headache, I would have used more points than they did and might treat them differently than I would treat a man.”
How Does Acupuncture Work for Headaches?
According to traditional Chinese medicine, headache is a form of stagnated chi in the body’s energy pathways, and acupuncture unblocks the stagnated areas, letting the chi flow freely, Loh says.
“Chi is a vital force that travels in our body through pathways called meridians,” he says. According to traditional Chinese medicine, there are 14 distinctive but connected meridians, each linked to a different organ. A blockage results in stagnation, which is where illness begins. Placing needles at various points along these meridians will release blockages, and ultimately, the pain will subside.
This mechanism “cannot be understood or examined through Western medical technology, but it works, according to the Chinese medical perspective,” Loh says.
Acupuncture Works for Migraine, Too
A recent study found acupuncture to be helpful for migraine. Researchers analyzed 15 studies involving over 2,000 patients and found that seven out of 10 studies showed less frequent and less intense headaches. Four studies found that acupuncture was just as effective as Western medical approaches but had fewer side effects.
The researchers concluded, “Acupuncture can be recommended as an alternative or adjunct to drug treatment for patients suffering from migraines.”
Loh says researchers in the study on acupuncture for tension headaches used the same points for all the people studied. “But according to [traditional Chinese medicine], headaches aren’t ‘one-size-fits-all.’ They have different presentations that require use of different acupuncture points.”
For example, headaches typically involve either the gallbladder or the urinary bladder meridian. If a person’s headache is on the side of the head, it usually involves the gallbladder meridian. So Loh then uses points related to the gallbladder. But if the headache is on the front or back of the head, it’s likely related to the urinary bladder meridian.
Also, “tension headaches are often back-to-front headaches and can be related to poor posture and neck position at work, often having to do with overuse of the computer. So I advise people to pay attention to their posture at work,” he says. And stress “is a universal problem that can also cause headaches, so I also recommend stress management, not only acupuncture, as part of a treatment protocol.”
More information about how acupuncture works, how to find an acupuncturist, and what to look for in an acupuncturist can be found at the links below.
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health
National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine
Council of Colleges of Acupuncture and Herbal Medicine