Research Roundup: Acupuncture and Headaches


Headaches are very common medical conditions that practitioners see in clinic. The two most common forms are migraine and tension-type, accounting for roughly 90% of all headaches managed in healthcare settings. They can be particularly severe and disabling, having a significant socioeconomic impact. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), acupuncture has been widely employed for treating headaches and in this edition of Research Roundup, we’re going to explore how effective acupuncture can be for migraines, arguably the more severe of the two. In fact, migraine headaches were ranked as the “sixth most prevalent out of 328 diseases” in the world according to the 2016 Global Burden of Disease Study.3

For those who suffer migraines or other headaches, any relief or decrease in the frequency (number of headaches in a particular time frame), duration (how long the headache lasts), or severity (how painful or disabling the headache feels) is the goal of the acupuncturist. The severity of the pain (the headache) and any associated neurological symptoms, including the migraine aura, is incredibly disruptive to the individual and is “most burdensome in women between ages 15 and 49 years.”3  The long term goal is the elimination of the headache, but any relief is significant. The goal of acupuncture is not just to mask the pain or symptoms, but to get to the root of the problem, as Dr. Rhoads likes to say.

In research, the highest quality of evidence comes from a Systematic Review, where multiple research studies are analyzed for their quality and their outcomes are summarized. In the way that they are analyzed, their combined data offers more consistent and reliable conclusions on how well the therapy works. The two research papers on acupuncture therapy for migraine headaches reviewed can be found here1 and here2. These systematic reviews examined a combined 43 research papers.

Both reviews concluded that “acupuncture is an effective and safe method for migraine”, and that “the acupuncture group had greater improvements in the frequency of migraine attacks, VAS score (for measuring pain), and treatment efficiency”. In other words, acupuncture was safe, reduced the pain, and the number of migraine headaches. A reduction in the duration of the headaches was only briefly mentioned, and this may reflect the need for further studies to fully clarify.


  1. Ou MQ, Fan WH, Sun FR, et al. A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of the Therapeutic Effect of Acupuncture on Migraine. Front Neurol. 2020;11:596. Published 2020 Jun 30. doi:10.3389/fneur.2020.00596

  2. Li YX, Xiao XL, Zhong DL, et al. Effectiveness and Safety of Acupuncture for Migraine: An Overview of Systematic Reviews. Pain Res Manag. 2020;2020:3825617. Published 2020 Mar 23. doi:10.1155/2020/3825617

  3. GBD 2016 Disease and Injury Incidence and Prevalence Collaborators. Global, regional, and national incidence, prevalence, and years lived with disability for 328 diseases and injuries for 195 countries, 1990–2016: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016. Lancet 2017; 390: 1211–59


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