Do headaches and migraines respond to acupuncture or herbal medicine treatment? Research says yes, and I have had success in my practice.
According to Chinese medical theory, pain results from restriction of the flow of oxygen and blood to and from local (painful) tissues. This results in the tissues experiencing starvation for nutrients and oxygen, along with a build up of toxic metabolic waste products. In short, Chinese medicine recognizes pain as a result of what Western medicine calls ischemia. For example, the pain felt by people experiencing a "heart attack" (myocardial infarction) results from obstruction of blood flow to the heart muscle.
The Chinese medical approach to head pain thus consists of using acupuncture and herbal medicines to regulate the circulation of blood and oxygen to and waste products from the head. This applies to all types of headaches.
According to Chinese medical theory, most common types of head pain, including migraines, result from an impairment of the functions of the liver. Such will result in head pain at the vertex, temples, or behind the eyes. It may also involved nausea because a stagnation of liver functions will affect the stomach and intestinal functions.
Researchers have published results of trials examining the effect of acupuncture on tension-type, idiopathic or primary, and migraine head pain.
The prestigious Cochrane Database Systematic Reviews published a review of research on the use of acupuncture for tension-type head pain which concluded that "acupuncture could be a valuable non-pharmacological tool in patients with frequent episodic or chronic tension-type headaches."
See Linde K, Allais G, Brinkhaus B, Manheimer E, Vickers A, White AR. "Acupuncture for tension-type headache," Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2009 Jan 21;(1):CD007587.
Western medical theory categorizes head pain as idiopathic or primary if conventional physicians can't identify a cause for the it. For most of these cases, a Chinese medical practictioner will find a cause.
Once again, the prestigious Cochrane Database Systematic Reviews published a review of research on the use of acupuncture for idiopathic head pain which concluded that "Overall, the existing evidence supports the value of acupuncture for the treatment of idiopathic headaches."
See: Melchart D, Linde K, Fischer P, Berman B, White A, Vickers A, Allais G. "Acupuncture for idiopathic headache," Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2001;(1):CD001218.
The prestigious Cochrane Database Systematic Reviews published a review of research on the prophylactic use of acupuncture for migraines which concluded that "there is consistent evidence that acupuncture provides additional benefit to treatment of acute migraine attacks only or to routine care... Available studies suggest that acupuncture is at least as effective as, or possibly more effective than, prophylactic drug treatment, and has fewer adverse effects[italics added]. Acupuncture should be considered a treatment option for patients willing to undergo this treatment."
See Linde K, Allais G, Brinkhaus B, Manheimer E, Vickers A, White AR. Acupuncture for migraine prophylaxis. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2009 Jan 21;(1):CD001218.
Migraines and Diet
I recommend that people who suffer migraines do a trial of elimination of gluten from the diet. Research suggests that a significant proportion of migraineurs have gluten intolerance, and that gluten intolerance may manifest more frequently as neurological disease than as intestinal disease (classical celiac).
For example, a study by Gabrielli et al found that 4.4% of migraine patients had celiac disease, compared to 0.4% of blood donor controls -- celiac occurred 11 times more frequently among the migraine sufferers.
You may have celiac disease even if you don't have obvious intestinal symptoms of gluten intolerance. Bushara points out that"studies have emphasized that a wider spectrum of neurologic syndromes may be the presenting extraintestinal manifestation of gluten sensitivity with or without intestinal pathology [italics added]. These include migraine, encephalopathy, chorea, brain stem dysfunction, myelopathy, mononeuritis multiplex, Guillain-Barre-like syndrome, and neuropathy with positive antiganglioside antibodies."
Gluten occurs in wheat, rye, barley, spelt, kamut, and related grains.
1. Gabrielli M, Cremonini F, Fiore G, et al. Association between migraine and Celiac disease: results from a preliminary case-control and therapeutic study. Am J Gastroenterol. 2003 Mar;98(3):625-9.
2. Bushara KO. Neurologic presentation of celiac disease. Gastroenterology. 2005 Apr;128(4 Suppl 1):S92-7.