Can acupuncture really help your headache?

The latest on one of the most common natural remedies for headaches.
By Nancy Ripton
natural headache remedies Photo, Adam Gault/Getty Images

When looking for natural headache remedies, many people turn to acupuncture. A 2006 survey in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that 10 percent of acupuncture users in the U.S. seek out the procedure specifically to treat headaches. Until recently, though, it has been difficult to prove its effectiveness scientifically.

One problem when it comes to studying acupuncture efficacy is that there is often a flaw in the control group, which usually receives sham acupuncture (when the needles aren’t inserted as deeply or are inserted at the wrong points). In many studies, even the recipients of sham acupuncture feel better after the treatment.

One study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2012 found that both the participants who received real, traditional acupuncture and the placebo control “sham” acupuncture group experienced a significant decrease in headache frequency.

“There appears to be a strong placebo effect with every treatment study, including acupuncture studies,” says Dr. Marek Gawel, a neurologist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto and former president of Headache Network Canada. “In terms of pain relief, there is a 30 to 40 percent rate of effectiveness with placebos.”

Other studies have yielded similar results: In a 2012 meta-analysis published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, researchers looked at 29 randomized control trials with nearly 18,000 patients treated for chronic pain and found real acupuncture was only slightly better than sham acupuncture.

A 2009 review of studies published on the Cochrane Library health database is one of the most comprehensive studies to date that suggests that acupuncture may truly be an effective natural headache remedy. The review looked at 22 trials with 4,419 participants and compared acupuncture with routine headache treatments with no prophylactic drug treatment, and with placebo treatment.


Researchers found that after three or four months of receiving acupuncture, participants had fewer headaches than those getting prophylactic drug treatment, with fewer negative side effects like fatigue.


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