There is a demonstrated need for acupuncture for headaches, because as many as 28 million Americans suffer from migraine headaches each year.(1) Migraines can be caused by a variety of physical and environmental factors, including diet, stress, allergens, menstruation, and changes in the weather. They can last from a few minutes to several days, which in some cases may completely incapacitate the person suffering an attack.
Migraine headaches are also one of the leading causes of time missed from work. It is estimated that migraine sufferers lose more than 157 million workdays each year, leading to a loss of approximately 50 billion dollars per year due to absenteeism and medical expenses caused by headache. An additional four billion dollars a year is spent on pain relievers for migraines and other headaches, but many of these remedies either do not work as needed, or simply mask an underlying condition.
In one of the largest studies of its kind to date, a team of investigators in Italy examined the effectiveness of acupuncture versus a variety of pharmacological therapies in treating migraine headaches (2). Their results revealed that patients given acupuncture experienced fewer headaches, missed fewer days from work, and suffered no side effects compared to patients on conventional drug therapy. They also found acupuncture to be more cost-efficient, estimating a savings of hundreds of millions of dollars in private and social health expenditures if it were used to treat headaches alone instead of drugs.
Statistical evaluation of acupuncture group and the group treated with pharmacological drugs found that acupuncture improved the symptoms of migraine headaches without aura “more significantly” than any type of pharmacological therapy. Total symptom scores in the acupuncture group dropped more than 7,800 points from the start of study to six months after the first treatment; in comparison, scores in the drug therapy group dropped less than 4,500.
Twelve months after the start of the study, total symptoms scores for patients using drug therapy were still nearly twice those compared to subjects treated with acupuncture for headaches.
One of the most significant aspects of the study was that even though patients were asked to document any side-effects from treatment, none were reported by participants in the acupuncture group. According to the investigators, “no negative sign was highlighted” by subjects receiving acupuncture for headaches, leading to the conclusion that “the total absence of side-effects after acupuncture treatment can be affirmed”.
Patients in the drug therapy group did not appear to fare as well. Of the 60 patients given pharmaceuticals, over three-quarters – 47 – reported side-effects ranging from nausea and diarrhea to flatulence and burning sensations. For instance, 16 of the 19 patients given flunarizine reported an unwanted weight gain of 3-4 kilograms; all 19 patients taking supatriptam, meanwhile, complained of difficulty breathing, nausea, stuffiness in the chest, and occasional vomiting.
1. NHF Headache Facts. Available from the National Headache Foundation (www.headaches.org).
2. Liguori A, Petti F, Bangrazi A et al. (2000). Comparison of pharmacological treatment versus acupuncture treatment for migraine without aura – analysis of sociomedical parameters. J Tradit Chin Med, 20(3):231-240.