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Acupuncture is a potential treatment for debilitating headaches

Millions of people, the world over, suffer each day from headaches. In the U.S. alone, around 16 percent of the population report having headaches within the past year, and more than 8 million Americans visit the doctor annually complaining of headaches. There are different types of headaches, and different types of treatments for this painful and debilitating ailment that affects so many people. 

A recent study published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, has tested whether acupuncture can be used to reduce the frequency of tension-type headaches in particular. These headaches are characterized by dull pain around the sides and back of the head. Sufferers say that the sensation is reminiscent of having a band of pressure squeezing around one’s head with mild to moderate intensity. Tension headaches do not get worse with physical activity and are not associated with nausea. The condition is considered chronic when headaches occur on at least 15 days per month.

“Tension-type headaches are one of the most common types of headaches and people who have a lot of these headaches may be looking for alternatives to medication,” said study author Dr. Ying Li of Chengdu University of Traditional Chinese Medicine. “Our study found that acupuncture reduces the average number of headache days per month for those struggling with these painful and disruptive headache attacks.”

In order to test whether acupuncture reduced the frequency of headache attacks, the researchers identified 218 people who suffered from chronic tension-type headaches, to take part in research. On average, the participants had suffered from these headaches for a total of 11 years and currently experienced headaches on 22 days of each month. 

The participants were randomly assigned to two groups, one that received treatment using true acupuncture and one that received only superficial acupuncture. True acupuncture treatments involved achieving a deqi sensation, which requires the practitioner to place and move a needle in the body to reach a tingling, numb, or heavy feeling. The superficial treatments did not penetrate as deeply and thus did not achieve the deqi sensation.

Both groups received two or three sessions per week over a period of two months; this gave a total of 20 sessions. Participants were then monitored for an additional six months. Apart from receiving acupuncture, the participants had to record their symptoms and use of medication in a diary. They also visited the clinic once a month.

The results of the study showed that all participants benefitted from acupuncture treatment. Overall, participants recorded a reduction of 50 percent in the number of days they experienced headaches. At the end of the study, 68 percent of the people receiving true acupuncture reported at least a 50 percent reduction in the monthly number of headache days. In comparison, only 50 percent of the people who received superficial acupuncture reported a similar improvement. The number of headache days experienced decreased gradually after the completion of treatment.

For those who received true acupuncture, headache days decreased from an average of 20 days per month at the beginning of the study to seven days per month by the end of the study. For those who received superficial acupuncture, headache days decreased from an average of 23 days per month at the beginning of the study to 12 days per month at the end of the study.

There were no serious side effects of the treatments during the study, although the study authors say the participants for the research all came from the same hospital and thus the results may not be generalizable to all populations. 

“While this study showed that acupuncture can reduce headaches, more research is needed to determine the longer-term effectiveness of acupuncture and how it compares to other treatment options,” said Dr. Li. “In comparing treatment options, cost-effectiveness is another important factor to evaluate.”

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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