Acupuncture for Migraines

by Mark Whalen

Just yesterday, I met a woman who, after finding out I was an acupuncturist, immediately asked me “what can you do for migraines”?  This is not uncommon.  I have met many migraine patients who have suffered for years with debilitating migraines. They have gone through a litany of doctor’s visits, specialists, testing, exams, and medications all with little to no results.  The frustration is obvious when speaking with them.

I’m biased, but I think acupuncture is the answer for these patients.  Acupuncture doesn’t work for everyone but acupuncture excels at conditions where western medicine falls short.  Many patients come to acupuncture as a last resort (I did when I first went for treatment) and finally get the relief they have been looking for after years of suffering.

Let’s take a look at some information about migraines and how acupuncture can help.

In the US alone over 30 million people suffer with migraines.  Studies show that 5 million people have one migraine per month and 11 million have migraines that cause moderate to severe disability1.

Ninety-one percent of migraine sufferers miss work or can’t function normally.  The estimated cost of lost productivity is between $5.6 to $17.2 billion2.

Causes of Migraine Headaches

The full cause of migraines is not known, although recent breakthroughs have identified a possible familial link.  It is estimated up to 70% of migraines are related to a genetic link3.  In 2010, researchers identified a change in the section of DNA that regulates the brain chemical glutamate4.T

Hormonal fluctuations may also play a role.  There is no difference in the incidence of migraines between pre-pubescent boys and girls but in the adult population, up to 75% of migraine suffers are women5.

Other triggers include food and environmental triggers including: chocolate, wine, nitrates, alcohol, MSG, strong odors/perfumes, bright lights, stress, muscle tension, weather changes, and many more.

Migraine Symptoms and treatment

Typical migraine symptoms may include an aura, pounding or pulsating pain in the head, blurred vision, tunnel vision, nausea, vomiting.  Migraines can be debilitating and greatly decrease a patient’s quality of life.

Treatment of active migraines includes medications designed to stop the attack, such as NSAIDS (Advil, Motrin, Excedrin Migraine, asprin etc), and Triptans (Imitrex is a prime example).  Triptans are stronger and are designed for more intense migraines.  Self care during an attack consists of lying in a dark, quiet room and placing a cold, damp facecloth on the head.  Getting some sleep may also help.

For patients with frequent migraines, there are also medications used to decrease the frequency of attacks.  These medications include beta-blockers, anti-depressants, anti-seizure medications and botox6.

On top of the immense suffering migraine patients endure they are also at greater risk for stroke7 and heart attack.  In a recent study, the increased heart attack risk was small, but still present.  Patients with an aura are three times more likely to have a heart attack or other major factors for heart disease including diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol8.

Before proceeding to read the riveting scientific explanation below, here are the cliff notes:

  • Our bodies are designed to be self-regulating systems, constantly working to maintain homeostasis.  Acupuncture acts as a stimulus to get the body to heal itself.

Acupuncture for Migraine

A migraine is the result of neuron signaling in the brain triggering dilation of blood vessels, causing pain signals, which lead to more neuronal activation9.  Serotonin, a brain neurotransmitter, is also believed to play a key role in the physiology of migraines as serotonin levels fall at the onset of a migraine but appear normal between attacks10.

In acupuncture theory, there is a saying, ‘if there is pain there is no free flow’- ‘if there is free flow, there is no pain’.  This simple statement explains the main concept of how we treat pain conditions.

It’s analogy time.

Imagine a garden hose.  When spread out straight, the water can flow smoothly with no problems.  If you put a knot in the hose, the water will not flow out and pressure builds up behind the knot.  The pressure represents the pain you are feeling and the knot is what is causing your migraine pain.  Acupuncture helps to remove the knot, restoring the flow of water.

Acupuncture has been shown to influence the area of the brain related to pain perception11.  Acupuncture is also able to influence the nervous system, causing the release and regulation of dopamine, serotonin and beta-endorphins, the feel good chemicals of the brain.  These brain chemicals can influence pain, mood and stress levels.  By influencing these, acupuncture can help in the short term and long term care of migraine.

Acupuncture focuses on treating acute attacks and the underlying cause at the same time.  Patients may experience immediate relief during an acute migraine attack.  In my experience, patients who get consistent acupuncture treatment have less frequent migraines, as well as reductions in intensity and duration.

With consistent treatment, patients (with the permission of their doctors) have been able to reduce their medications and in some cases get off medications entirely.  The end result is an improved quality of life.

Aside from getting acupuncture, I recommend keeping a journal of your migraines.  Look for ways to identify your triggers – foods, moods, stress, weather etc.   By keeping a journal you can measure the frequency, intensity, and duration of your migraines.  Also, find ways to manage your stress- yoga, tai chi, meditation, acupuncture, and exercise- find a method that works and stick with it.

  1.  Written by Otesa Miles.  Reviewed by John-Claude Krusz PhD, MD.  November 2010
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid.
  4. First Genetic Link Found for Common Migraine. Researchers a Step Closer to Unlocking Mysteries of Migraines By Kelli Miller Stacy. WebMD Health News.  Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD
  5. Lay CL, Broner SW (May 2009). "Migraine in women". Neurologic Clinics 27 (2): 503 doi:10.1016/j.ncl.2009.01.002. PMID 19289228.
  8. Migraines Linked to Heart Attack Risk.  Study Shows Heart Risk Is Highest for Those With Migraines With Aura By Jennifer Warner WebMD Health News. Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
  10. Larkin, Marilynn, “The Role of Serotonin in Migraine” JAMA Migraine Information Center,
  11. Acupuncture Changes Brain's Perception And Processing Of Pain. Nov 30, 2010 Coauthors are Kyung-Eun Choi, M.Sc., Elke Gizewski, M.D., Ph.D., Thomas Rampp, M.D., Gustav Dobos, M.D., Ph.D., Michael Forsting, M.D., Ph.D., and Frauke Musial, Ph.D. Radiological Society of America

Mark Whalen is a Licensed Acupuncturist and Board Certified Herbalist and the founder of Five Points Acupuncture & Wellness in Reading, MA.

Mark Whalen – who has written posts on Acupuncture Reading MA - Five Points Acupuncture & Wellness.


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Five Points Acupuncture & Wellness
20 Pondmeadow Dr #107, Reading, MA 01867
Phone: (781) 944-3000


Serving Reading, North Reading, Wakefield, Burlington and the surrounding Middlesex County, MA areas.

Zip Codes: 01730, 01810, 01867, 01880, 01821, 01803, 01864, 01876,
01887, 01915, 01923, 01940, 01949, 01960