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Acupuncture is significantly better than no treatment/basic care for managing migraine, and appears to be at least as effective as prophylactic drug therapy, but with few contraindications or unpleasant side effects (Linde 2009, Wang 2008, Sun 2008, Scott 2008).
Acupuncture has a similar or slightly better effect than sham procedures, which themselves can perform as well as conventional drugs. Acupuncture has also been found to be cost-effective (Witt 2008; Wonderling 2004).
As well as preventing headaches, acupuncture can also be used to alleviate symptoms in acute attacks (Li 2009).
There is preliminary qualitative evidence from patients that acupuncture can increase coping mechanisms as well as relieve migraine symptoms (Rutberg 2009).
Acupuncture stimulates nerves located in muscles and other tissues, and leads to the release of endorphins and other neurohumoral factors and changes the processing of pain in the brain and spinal cord (Zhao 2008, Zijlstra 2003, Pomeranz, 1987).
Acupuncture promotes the release of vascular and immuno-modulatory factors (Kim 2008, Kavoussi 2007, Zijlstra 2003).
Acupuncture reduces the degree of cortical spreading depression - (an electrical wave in the brain associated with migraine) and plasma levels of calcitonin gene-related peptide and substance P (both implicated in the pathophysiology of migraine) (Shi 2010).
Acupuncture can modulate extracranial and intracranial blood flow (Park 2009).
Acupuncture affects serotonin (5-hydroxytriptamine) levels in the brain (Zhong 2007). (Serotonin may be linked to the initiation of migraines; 5-HT agonists (triptans) are used against acute attacks.)
Migraine and tension headaches can be debilitating, particularly if you are suffering with them regularly or if you are finding the medications aren't working, but there is good news, acupuncture is proven to help.
Acupuncture is one of the treatments recognised by NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) as having a positive impact on chronic tension type headaches and recommends people experiencing headaches to consider a course of up to 10 sessions of acupuncture over 5-8 weeks (2012).
What to expect from treatment
I treat migraine and tension headaches regularly, and with great results.
In my experience most people start to notice a reduction in their headaches around the 2nd or 3rd treatment, and rarely is a course of 10 weekly sessions required. In chronic cases where a patient may experience migraines or tension headaches monthly/weekly or more, or where factors beyond your control (such as an ongoing stressful event) contribute to them, I recommend patient's come in once per month for a top up treatment after their course, just to help keep them at bay.
I start off all my acupuncture treatments by taking a thorough case history. This is your chance to tell me all about the symptoms you are experiencing, how long they have been going on for, how they impact you, and what you feel contributes to them. There is no rush, I always schedule 90 minutes for a first appointment so we have all the time we need. I'll ask you about other areas of your health, such as your sleep and digestion, and with your permission, I will also feel your pulse and look at your tongue. All this gives me more diagnostic information which might be relevant to your overall Chinese medicine diagnosis.
You will have an opportunity to ask me any questions you might have before we start treatment. I want you to be completely comfortable before I do anything, and I will talk you through the process of having acupuncture, and what you can expect.
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