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How Does Acupuncture Help with Chronic Headaches

How Does Acupuncture Help with Chronic Headaches?

There is growing evidence that acupuncture is effective for chronic headaches and migraines. The exact mechanisms behind this pain relief aren’t completely understood, but there are several theories. According to these theories, acupuncture appears to:

  • Modulate the nervous system
  • Release endorphins and opioid-like compounds
  • Improve circulation
  • Reduce stress and encourage relaxation

Together, these can provide significant relief for many people with chronic pain.

Four Benefits of Acupuncture with Chronic Headaches or Migraines

Here’s a closer look at acupuncture’s benefits on chronic headaches and migraines:

Stimulates the nervous system

Chinese medicine practitioners assert that acupuncture’s effects stem from improved Qi flowwhich is the body’s essential life energy. It does this by accessing meridians, which are channels near the surface of the body through which Qi flows.

Western medicine’s perspective is that every acupuncture needle stimulates the nervous system, for both local and distal nerves. In doing so, acupuncture produces an array of beneficial effects on pain. Part of this is releasing pain-relieving compounds into the blood, and part of it is stimulating a pain-relieving relaxation response. 

Improves circulation and blood flow

Acupuncture can also support cardiovascular health and performance, which may reduce headache pain. In addition to endorphins and opioid-like compounds, acupuncture also stimulates the release of nitric oxide.

Nitric oxide is a vasodilator, which means it relaxes blood vessels when present. Relaxed blood vessels can circulate high volumes of blood more efficiently, which allows the body to deliver pain-relieving compounds faster and modulate pain better.
Further, some research shows that migraine pain can be worsened by changes in blood flow to the brain. By improving circulation, acupuncture can help control migraine pain.

Releases beneficial biocompounds

Following an acupuncture treatment plan, researchers have noted higher levels of certain pain-relieving compounds. Some of these compounds are hormones, some of them are peptides, and some fit in both categories.

For example, it’s well established that acupuncture increases endorphin levels – something that’s been noted in many trials and articles. Endorphins are the same compounds released in response to pain and promote well-being while down regulating the pain response.

Acupuncture also stimulates the release of endogenous opioid compounds. Endogenous means they’re naturally produced by the body. These compounds, which are both hormone and peptide, block pain using the same mechanisms that opioid medications do.
In effect, acupuncturists use the body’s own pain-fighting abilities that engage in response to an injury – without actually causing an injury.   

Many studies show that acupuncture also balances out hormones – including estrogen. When estrogen levels fluctuate, research suggests that blood vessels are more likely to constrict, worsening migraine pain. Elevated estrogen levels may also increase nerve sensitivity in the face and head. Acupuncture can modulate these hormonal responses with better hormonal balance.

Reduces stress and anxiety

Chronic headaches can cause stress and may be triggered by stress, as well. Acupuncture can help resolve both.

Many people use acupuncture as a form of mental care, as research shows it can resolve stress-related symptoms. There may be two reasons for this. One, the acupuncture treatment process is relaxing. It’s typically done in a dim, quiet room. It is performed methodically and with care. The patient is given time to relax alone while the needles do their work. There may be gentle music playing or aromatherapy in the room as well. All of these stimuli work to calm the patient down.

Acupuncture can also stimulate the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, extending stress-relieving results. This is the part of the nervous system responsible for triggering the body’s relaxation response, including slowing heart rate and down regulating pain, including headache pain.

What Does Research Say About Acupuncture and Chronic Headaches?

Some of the most robust acupuncture-related medical research involves chronic headaches and migraines. There have been hundreds of studies involving thousands of patients, but many of the early studies were of poor quality. Further, they had trouble separating control and experimental groups, as a reliable placebo version of acupuncture did not exist. That has changed in recent years with improved “sham” acupuncture controls. Sham acupuncture is performed like “true” acupuncture, only the needle is never inserted into the skin.

Among the most compelling studies is a 2012 review published in JAMA Internal Medicine. This meta-analysis used extremely strict controls to select the highest quality studies available on chronic pain – headache pain included. Only studies that included modern sham acupuncture as a placebo were accepted.

In the end, 29 studies were selected, with 17,922 patients in all. The research team concluded that true acupuncture reliably produced a larger analgesic effect than either sham acupuncture or no acupuncture. Interestingly, sham acupuncture still demonstrated effectiveness beyond the no acupuncture group, suggesting that there is more at work than physiological factors. 

Acupuncture is Safe For Many Suffering with Chronic Headaches

Acupuncture treatments are safe if provided by an experienced, licensed acupuncturist in Houston. While the safety of acupuncture is true for most patients, there are a few exceptions, including:

  • People with anemia
  • People taking blood thinners
  • People who have a pacemaker (electroacupuncture can interfere with its operation)
  • Women who are pregnant (some acupuncture points are believed to stimulate labor)

The most common side effects of acupuncture are very minor pain and minimal bleeding at the insertion site. Many patients don’t feel anything during acupuncture treatment, while others report temporary tingling sensations or something similar.

Experienced, licensed practitioners have demonstrated their commitment to safe and effective acupuncture treatments. This includes targeting the right acupuncture points for treatment and only relying on single-use needles for sanitation purposes.

Acupuncture has demonstrated effectiveness in many types of medical conditions, but it’s especially promising for chronic headache pain and migraines. If the frequency or severity of your headaches is a cause for concern, consider scheduling an appointment with a reputable acupuncturist.

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