Updated: Dec 10, 2021
Migraines are a complex condition that can be safely and effectively treated with Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
Migraines can cause major life disruptions, and in Calgary where dramatic winter weather changes are a trigger for many people, the past month has been particularly hard on some. So it seems like a good time to talk about how I work with migraines, the evidence behind it, and answer some FAQs.
In this blog:
How it Works
The effectiveness of acupuncture for migraines is well documented. A 2009 review of over 20 high quality trials with over 4400 participants concluded that there was “consistent evidence” for the effectiveness of acupuncture for treating acute migraine attacks (source). And a 2012 literature review in the Canadian Medical Association Journal concluded that acupuncture is “at least as effective as prophylactic drug therapy, has longer lasting effects, is safe, seems to be cost-effective and reduces drug intake with possibly severe unwanted effects” (source).
And that’s just acupuncture! Other TCM modalities such as herbal formulas (source) and cupping are also beneficial for migraines, and a combination of these techniques can be particularly powerful. So let's look at how it works.
How it Works
Despite a great deal of research, the biomedical cause of migraines is still largely unknown, and therefore treatment options are limited. Most prescription drugs (and procedures such as Botox) deal primarily with decreasing or blocking the pain, but are not geared towards sustainable, long term prevention.
By contrast, TCM understands migraines (and their accompanying symptoms like nausea, photosensitivity, etc.) to be the result of underlying imbalances and/or blockages in the body. We refer to these imbalances as the ben (root), and the resulting symptoms as the biao (branches). Acupuncturists have tools to manage the migraine pain (branch), as well as a framework for diagnosing and treating the root. The result is both short-term relief and longer term prevention in many cases.
So what does this look like in practice?
At the start of a visit, we'll discuss your symptoms and health history, and I’ll use a combination of diagnostic techniques such as tongue and pulse observation to identify your individual patterns. Then onto treatment...
Unblocking Qi & Blood Flow: Releasing Neck and Shoulder Tension
In TCM theory, pain is a result of blockages in qi and/or blood flow. I will often start each treatment with a combination of cupping, guasha scraping and/or acupressure to address blockages. This involves relieving muscle tension in the neck and shoulders, as well as the face and jaw if necessary. I find this boosts the effectiveness of the rest of the treatment regardless of the other presenting patterns.
Treating the Branch: Relieving Migraine Symptoms
We'll work on treating the migraine pain and any associated symptoms such as tinnitus, nausea, light sensitivity etc. Sometimes this means needling local points (on or near the site of the migraine) or distal points (at other parts of the body such as the hands and feet).
The site of the migraine pain helps us diagnose what channels are affected, and therefore what points to use. So different acupuncture points are used depending on whether the migraines are: on the forehead, in the temples, behind the eyes, at the back of the head or at the top of the head.
Treating the Root: Resolving Imbalances
During the appointment, this means placing needles in mostly distal acupuncture points. I may also recommend a Chinese herbal formula, food sensitivity testing, and dietary and/or lifestyle protocols that will enhance the acupuncture treatment.
The root imbalances that lead to migraines take time to resolve. Often the longer these patterns have been going on, the more work it takes to rebalance them. Fortunately, the payoff of this work is often longer lasting prevention of migraines, as well as other overall health benefits.
How many treatments do I need?
A recommended course of treatment is usually 10-12 regular acupuncture appointments. These are best done 1-2 times per week. Some relief may be felt as soon as the first appointment, however greater and more sustained results can take several months, and this varies with the individual’s patterns, other health conditions and lifestyle factors.
We'll talk about expectations for your individual treatment plan at your initial visit. You can also book a free 15 min. video consult to chat more about it before coming in.
Do I need to take herbs? How long would I take them for?
As shown in the studies mentioned above, acupuncture can benefit migraines on its own. However, herbs are very helpful for this condition, and can even accelerate the acupuncture results, so they are recommended in many cases. A course of treatment is generally several months.
Again, we'll discuss the options in your appointment or video consult, and you will never be expected to commit to herbal therapy.
Can I still get acupuncture if I’m receiving other migraines treatments?
Yes, acupuncture is safe and compatible with biomedical migraine treatments, though some modifications may be necessary. You'll be asked to list all current medications, supplements and therapies you're receiving, so I can make the proper accommodations.
Do I have to have a migraine when I come in for a treatment?
You can come in while you have a migraine, especially if you’re looking for immediate relief - but you don’t have to! We’ll use the information gathered from your intake form and pattern diagnosis to inform each treatment.
Can I still get TCM treatment for migraines if I’m afraid of needles?
Yes! While acupuncture is often the most efficient route with the most evidence based research backing it up, it’s not the only option. As discussed above, I will use cupping, guasha, acupressure, herbal formulas, and/or dietary and lifestyle protocols to treat migraines.