Acupuncture for migraines

For some, migraines are only an occasional inconvenience, but for many people the condition is a severe problem with potent symptoms that can be extremely debilitating. In this article we look at what migraines are, and more specifically, how acupuncture can be used to treat them.

What are migraines?

Migraines are usually a recurrent set of symptoms which can vary in some ways from person to person. The most well-known and common symptom of migraines is undoubtedly the severe, pulsing headache that can last from anywhere between a couple of hours to a few days. A number of symptoms usually accompany migraines, and the most common of these include nausea and vomiting and sensitivity to light and sound (known medically as photophobia and phonophobia respectively).

About a third of sufferers are known to experience what is called an aura prior to or alongside the onset of other symptoms. These are usually a brief sensory (like blocks of abnormal colour or sounds, motor, or lingual disturbance. People who regularly experience migraines usually go through the same pattern of symptoms every time they have an episode.

The causes of migraines are thought to be quite complex, and include a combination of both genetic and environmental causes. Many sufferers will have a family history of migraine, and it is thought that more men suffer from the condition due to changes in hormone levels that might be linked to the disease. This is supported by the fact that many women become particularly susceptible to migraines during pregnancy, when hormone levels are known to vary.

The mechanisms behind a migraine remain a mystery, although there has been evidence in support of a number of different theories. It is currently thought that the disease is a neurovascular condition, meaning that neurological dysfunctions cause disruptions in the blood supply to certain parts of the brain, resulting in the distinctive symptoms of the condition.

Effective treatments for migraines remains elusive, although most people benefit from the use of standard painkillers like paracetamol and ibuprofen. As nausea and vomiting are common symptoms, anti-emetics (anti-nausea medications) like domperidone are often recommended as well. These are standard and fairly straightforward remedies that vary in their effectiveness. More complex strategies involve delivering combinations of painkillers and caffeine, or applying preventative medications which, when taken according to a dosing schedule, can stave off migraines.

Many people struggle to cope with migraines, and in many of these particular cases the condition can be quite severe and debilitating. A number of alternative medical techniques exist which offer other routes by which migraines can be managed, and one of these is acupuncture.

How can acupuncture help treat migraines?

The usefulness of acupuncture in the treatment of migraines has been extensively investigated, although the quality of many of these studies has been brought under scrutiny. More recently large scale and high quality research has revealed a consensus: that acupuncture can be more beneficial than the lack of treatment or the use of standard first line migraine treatment (over the counter painkillers and anti-emetics).

It is currently thought that acupuncture can provide a cost-effective method of both relieving the symptoms of migraines, and helping an individual cope with what can be a potent, long-term problem.

According to traditional acupuncturists Qi flows through the body to provide it with health and vigour. Qi is carried by specialised vessels called meridians, and traditional Chinese medicine is based on the belief that disruptions in the flow of Qi to any part of the body will soon be followed by sickness or disease. Acupuncture was developed as a means by which healthy Qi flow can be restored to parts of the body suffering from disease and a lack of Qi.

Modern interpretations of the traditional practice of acupuncture report a number of other mechanisms by which acupuncture can potentially treat migraines. These include:

  • The provision of pain relief by stimulating the release of natural, physiological pain killers from nerve cells. These are a class of compounds called neurotransmitters which can effectively and safely help with pain management.
  • Reduce inflammation by stimulating the body to release chemicals that control the inflammation process.
  • Helping restore healthy and regular blood flow (disruptions in  blood flow through the tightening and expansion of blood vessels (vasoconstriction and vasodilation respectively) is thought to be an one of the mechanisms behind the onset of migraines).
  • Stimulating the levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter now known to be closely involved in the onset of migraines.

The actual acupunctural treatment is delivered through specially designed acupuncture needles. These are usually made out of stainless steel, and are fine needles of varying length which can be applied painlessly by an experienced and trained acupuncturist.

Needles are applied to pre-determined acupoints which are known to aid in stimulating recovery. These acupoints are all over the body and relate to particular organs and structures.

Acupuncture is a useful alternative therapy that can be invaluable when offered in support of routine medical treatments. You should always speak to your doctor about acupuncture and your condition to ensure that he or she is fully informed about your health.

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