]]>Migraines]]> are severe headaches often complicated by sensitivity to light and sound, as well as nausea and vomiting. It is estimated that 12% to 14% of women and 6% to 8% of men experience migraines. Medications can help prevent and treat these severe headaches, but many people turn to alternative therapies, such as acupuncture. However, the evidence supporting acupuncture for treating migraines has been scant.

A new study published online by The Lancet Neurology on March 2, 2006 compared the effectiveness of traditional acupuncture, sham (fake) acupuncture, and medications for the prevention of migraines. The researchers found that all three treatments were equally effective in reducing the number of days the participants suffered from migraines.

About the Study

Researchers in Germany analyzed 794 people who had 2-6 migraine attacks in the four weeks before the study began. The participants were randomly assigned to receive one of the following treatments:

  • Traditional acupuncture – needles inserted into the skin according to the practice of traditional Chinese medicine
  • Sham acupuncture – needles inserted into areas of the skin at which no traditional acupuncture points exist
  • Standard migraine medications – beta blockers, calcium-channel blockers, or antiepileptic drugs

Participants in the acupuncture groups underwent 10 half-hour acupuncture sessions over six weeks. The researchers compared the number of days the participants suffered from migraines in the four-week period before the study began with the number of migraine days reported during weeks 23-26 into the study.

Traditional acupuncture, sham acupuncture, and medications were associated with average reductions of 2.3, 1.5, and 2.1 migraine days, respectively. All three reductions were significantly different from the before-study measurement, but were not significantly different from each other. Forty-seven percent of participants in the traditional acupuncture group, 39% of those in the sham acupuncture group, and 40% of those in the standard group experienced a reduction of migraine days by 50% or more.

This study was limited because 106 participants assigned to the medication group withdrew from the study, compared with 19 participants in the other groups combined. This may have diminished the power of the study to detect significant differences between the treatment types.

Also, the long-term effects of these treatments were not assessed.

How Does This Affect You?

This study suggests that acupuncture—whether traditional or sham—is as effective as medications in treating migraines. These findings appear to be promising for people who experience migraines, since they suggest acupuncture may in fact help.

But why was sham acupuncture as effective as traditional acupuncture? It may be that there is a powerful placebo effect associated with the experience of acupuncture (i.e., people expect it to work) irrespective of needle positioning, which decreases the likelihood of having a migraine attack. Or perhaps the insertion of needles into the skin—regardless of their location—somehow helps prevent migraines through a physiologic mechanism. Although needle insertion was no better than medications, acupuncture has the advantage of rarely producing significant side effects; a claim that cannot be made of medications.