A migraine is a complex medical condition that isn’t easily treated with western pharmacology. Drug therapy may be effective in the short term but lose its efficacy over time. Or the drug may have undesirable side effects. Both patients and doctors are looking for effective and safe alternatives. The most promising therapy that deserves attention is acupuncture. There are a number of well-researched clinical studies that found acupuncture to be an effective treatment for migraines.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the etiology or reason for migraine development follows the known triggers of migraine pain. (link migrainetrust.org). These include external pathogens, emotional factors, diet, stress, trauma and mechanical stress. In the TCM model, all diseases, such as headaches, present as a particular imbalanced energetic pattern. A qualified acupuncturist will be able to identify this pattern, and address both root cause of the migraine and its presenting symptoms. Discussing TCM jargon with clients can be confusing and they often ask: how does acupuncture work for migraines? So instead of discussing the TCM view of migraines, I wanted to offer a look at how acupuncture affects the physiology, from a western perspective, to help manage migraines.
1. Acupuncture relieves pain: There is a growing body of evidence that acupuncture helps manage pain by promoting hormones such as endorphins, that activate the body’s opiate receptors, causing an analgesic effect.
2. Acupuncture reduces inflammation: Researchers have recently identified a key biological marker, which when initiated by acupuncture, successfully down regulates a pro-inflammatory biochemical. What this means is that acupuncture can help the body reduce inflammation. It should be noted that inflammation from trauma or during a cold/flu is a natural part of the body’s defense. Short-term inflammation should not be minimized. Rather, inflammation that is chronic and low grade (due to elevated stress levels, autoimmune disease, etc.) can inhibit the proper functioning of the body leading to a host of issues including pain, low energy, mood disorders and gastrointestinal complications.
3. Acupuncture can relax muscles: Some migraines may be a result of tight upper back and neck muscles which impact the amount of blood reaching the brain. Poor posture, working at a computer for extended periods or stress can lead to rigid muscles of the upper back and neck. Rigid muscles can constrict blood vessels and decrease blood flow from the brain to our limbs. When our brain receives less blood, we have an automatic response to increase its blood flow, via a neurotransmitter causing a “rebound dilation”. This rebound dilation counteracts the poor blood flow and over dilates the arteries in the brain to receive more blood. These arteries are wrapped with pain receptors and when they rapidly expand, they cause the receptors to stretch, leading to intense pain and throbbing. Acupuncture can help reduce muscle tightness and rigidity by releasing motor and trigger points in the muscles, promoting the muscle to relax.
4. Acupuncture promotes relaxation: In my opinion, the relaxing effect of acupuncture is what the medicine does best. Acupuncture engages your parasympathetic nervous system (think rest and digest response) while curtailing your fight or flight. Migraine triggers like stress, sleep disturbances and hormonal imbalances can be mitigated by acupuncture’s ability to rebalance hormones and flood the body with feel good neurotransmitters.
When treating clients suffering from migraines, it’s important to consider potential trigger, pain pattern as well as key diagnostic points (type of headache, onset, aggravation, amelioration and accompanying features). Keeping a “migraine journal” is helpful because that will help track the changes in intensity, duration and frequency. In treatment, acupuncture points are selected depending on the energetic imbalance and if the client is currently experiencing a headache or not. Body, cranial and auricular acupuncture may be appropriate. With adequate treatment and self-care, migraines can be a thing of the past!
Kevin Joubert Acupuncture