The study, the largest to date on using acupuncture to ease headaches, adds to a conflicting body of evidence: Some research has suggested that adding acupuncture to standard headache medication brings patients additional pain relief; other studies, however, have found that “sham” acupuncture — using blunted needles that do not pierce the skin — is as effective as the real thing.
Those latter studies call into question the true effectiveness of acupuncture.
For the current study, published in the journal Cephalalgia, German researchers followed more than 15,000 adults with chronic headaches; all had been suffering from either migraine or tension-type headaches at least twice a month for 1 year or more.
Of these patients, nearly 3,200 agreed to be randomly assigned to either have acupuncture added to their regular therapy or to stay with their usual care alone. The rest of the patients began on acupuncture treatment.
All of the acupuncture patients received up to 15 sessions over 3 months, and all study patients were reassessed after 6 months.
In the end, the study found, acupuncture patients reported greater pain improvements than those who stayed with their usual care only. At the outset, they reported an average of 8.4 headache days over 3 months; that dropped to 4.7 by the study’s end.
In the usual care only group, the average number of headache days remained virtually the same: 8.1 days initially, and 7.5 days at the end of the study.
“Acupuncture plus routine care in patients with headache was associated with marked clinical improvements compared with routine care alone,” write the researchers, led by Dr. Stefan N. Willich of Charite University Medical Center in Berlin.
Acupuncture has been used for more than 2,000 years in Chinese medicine to treat a wide variety of ailments. According to traditional medicine, specific acupuncture points on the skin are connected to internal pathways that conduct energy, or qi (“chee”), and stimulating these points with a fine needle promotes the healthy flow of qi.
Modern research has suggested that acupuncture may help ease pain by altering signals among nerve cells or affecting the release of various chemicals of the central nervous system.
SOURCE: Cephalalgia, September 2008.