Role of Acupuncture in Treatment of Migraines
On May 18, 2018
Migraine headaches affect over 12% of Earth’s population, especially women. They can leave sufferers unable to perform even the most mundane of daily activities. Migraines are now thought to be partially genetic in their origins, as studies show differences in the actual brain structure of migraine sufferers. Suicidality is increased for migraineurs, so reducing the intensity, duration, or frequency of migraines could literally mean the difference between life and death for some. The current state of migraine research is focused mainly on drugs, but meditation, diet, behavior, yoga, and acupuncture have all been studied as potential avenues of treatment. Currently, acupuncture has been shown to be more effective than drugs at prevention, though not as effective for acute episodes.
I am a migraine sufferer with decades of experience in managing this debilitating condition. Over time I have discovered much about what is effective, and what is not. I wish to share these findings with my colleagues so that we can advance this particular aspect of our profession and art. I use everything I have learned with my patients, and I find that they experience great benefits from a combination of TCM, mindfulness, and dietary changes (especially important in moderating inflammatory responses and hormonal issues). I will outline some of these protocols and plans for you, here.
Migraine headaches, as most chronic debilitating conditions, require a consistent and multi-faceted approach. As someone who has personally suffered from them for decades, I can tell you that there is no one single treatment method, and there is no permanent cure. However, I can also tell you that there are definitely things that work, and things that don’t work. You’ll be happy to know that by the time you’re done reading this article you’ll be well on your way to helping some of the more than 12% of the human population who have to endure migraine headaches. You’ll be using a combination of acupuncture, bodywork, dietary therapy, mindfulness, and working together with your patient’s doctor to help them find drugs for when things become unbearable. Using this article as a framework, you should be able to prevent people from being bed-ridden, in excruciating pain. Not all the time, but less is more here. You may even be saving a life, since migraine sufferers commit suicide at a higher rate (Wang S., et al.).
First off: drugs. We’re not going to grandstand here. We’re taking a “by any means necessary” approach. Please don’t tell your patients that their migraine drugs are bad, even if you are both aware of the side-effects (and there are plenty, I assure you). I suffer much less than I used to, but I thank God for the miracle of certain migraine medications. Studies have shown that for acute migraine attacks, drugs just work better than acupuncture. Prevention and overall well-being are a different story, however. Systematic reviews of acupuncture for migraine relief have shown a greater effectiveness of acupuncture over drugs (Linde K, et al.).
The root causes of migraines are not fully understood yet, but research suggests that the brains of migraine sufferers have structural differences in the cortex (Messina, R., et al). It is thinner in some areas compared to non-migraine sufferers, and thicker in others. One of the areas it is thinner is the part that processes pain perception. Women are three times more susceptible to migraines than men, due to the sharp drop-offs in estrogen and progesterone during menstruation. These types of migraines are known as menstrual migraines, and are often treated with some forms of birth control. In addition to hormones, a host of things can trigger a migraine in those who are prone: certain foods, food additives, sensory input (lights, sounds, even smells), stress, weather, certain medications, strenuous physical activity, alcohol, and changes in sleep-wake patterns. In short, just about anything. It’s no wonder that migraine sufferers are more likely than average to resort to self-harm to stop their pain.
Let’s talk about acupuncture. I recommend that patients who are at the beginning of their time with me come at least three times a week. This is an important point, as migraines are incredibly stubborn and require diligent, consistent, focused treatment. I have found that treating trigger points and motor points with electro-acupuncture on the following muscle groups to be very helpful: upper and mid trapezius, sternocleidomastoid, levator scapulae, frontalis, temporalis, occipitalis, and masseter. In order to narrow things down and keep the number of needles to a minimum (since I highly recommend strong dispersive needling), you will want to palpate for rope-like fibers, tender areas, and rice grain-like “gummies” in the soft tissues surrounding the head and neck to determine which channels are most affected. Gua sha is a good way to find out which muscle groups are affected, as well. The areas with the most sha are a good indicator of where to start. These channels can be threaded along the scalp, as well as needled distally. As I said, a strong de qi sensation is necessary to get the channels moving and clear the congestion of the meridians in the head and neck. There will be time to tonify and build, when the frequency of attacks is less.
A quick note on the absence of herbal therapies in this article: I have not found herbs to be of great use in treating people with hormonally induced migraines. I suspect this is true of all migraine sufferers whose condition has a strong hormonal aspect, though I can’t say for sure.
Diet is a very key component, however. A whole separate article could be written about the influence of food on migraines, with several pages just listing foods that can trigger a migraine (anything with tyramine, histamine, nitrites, sulfites). An elimination diet, though difficult and off-putting for most, will allow your patient to figure out which foods can be a trigger for them. A complete migraine elimination diet can be found easily online, and should definitely be part of your treatment strategy. The study where this diet originated can be found in the references below (Bunner, A., et al.). Many patients will find this part of the process the most difficult. You can pretty much guarantee they will probably find some of their favorite foods on that list. That’s the point of the conversation when I take out my container of plain sunflower seeds, and solemnly nod in solidarity.
End Bio: Born into a family of physicians in the former Soviet Union, Irina Logman now owns and operates the Advanced Holistic Center in New York City with her team. She has been tirelessly treating patients up and down Manhattan for fourteen years, while raising her two children.