Acupuncture works for chronic tension headaches

Acupuncture works for chronic tension headaches

It’s estimated that 75% of Americans have experienced a tension type headache. This is according to the American Migraine Foundation and shows that these headaches, lasting 30 minutes to a week, and tending to become chronic, have a huge impact in our society.

Now in a randomized and controlled study, published in the American Academy of Neurology journal, Neurology, Hui Zheng, and colleagues show that a standardized course of acupuncture can have a significant impact on these headaches.

The study used a protocol including a treatment group and a control group. Headache sufferers were randomly placed in one of the groups. Both groups were given 30 minute acupuncture treatments, 20 treatments in an 8 week course, using the same group of points*. The difference between the control group and the treatment group was whether the acupuncturist needled to achieve de qi. De qi is a sensation acupuncturists are taught to sense and achieve through the inserted needles that indicates the needle is at the right level to be effective. In the treatment group, de qi was achieved. In the control group needles were only inserted superficially.

Results were measured at 16 weeks, after two courses of treatment, and at 32 weeks, four courses of treatment. The primary outcome measured was a 50% or greater reduction in monthly number of headache days. After week 16, 68.2% of the people in the treatment group responded, compared to 48.1% in the control group. After week 32 the treatment group stayed at 68.2% and the control group improved to 50%. The researchers also looked at the actual number of monthly headache days and found the treatment group had 4.3 fewer headaches per month than the control group after 16 weeks (13.1 fewer days v. 8.8 fewer days); and 4.5 fewer days after 32 weeks ( 14 fewer days v. 9.5 fewer days). No doubt the acupuncture was effective.

A curious side note about the control group…they still received acupuncture, just not the style invoking de qi sensation. The points used were still acupoints and superficial needling is a known style in acupuncture. While this study is valuable and certainly encourages acupuncture for headaches, and it adjusts for the placebo effect in acupuncture, using a control group that did not receive any form of acupuncture may have proven even greater results.

* Points used were GB20 (Fengchi), EX-HN 5 (Taiyang), Du20 (Baihui), LI4 (Hegu), Liv 3 (Taichong)

Zheng H, et al. Acupuncture for patients with chronic tension-type headache: a randomized controlled trial. Neurology, June 22, 2022 (online)

Lisa C. Decatorsmith, L.Ac., MSOM
Practitioner of Eastern Medicine at Exhale Sinus, TMJ, Headache & Sleep