Acupuncture for Headaches

Nearly everyone gets a headache from time to time, but for some people headaches can be so frequent and/or intense that they become incapacitating. Headaches account for nearly 2% of all GP consultations, and about 4,000 hospital admissions and 10,000 outpatient attendances per year. The conventional medical treatment of headaches usually involves drugs, but these are not always effective and often involve unwanted side-effects. This is why a considerable and increasing number of headache sufferers turn to alternative medicine in general, and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in particular, for help with their condition.

The two most common types of headache are Migraine headaches and tension type headaches. Migraines are sudden, violent headaches with recurrent attacks, and can last for several days. They are sometimes preceded by a visual aura and can involve nausea and vomiting. The headache is usually on one side of the head, perhaps around the temple.

Tension type headaches can be one sided but are more usually felt on both sides of the head, perhaps like a tightness or pressure around the forehead and temples, possibly spreading down the neck. Most such headaches last a few hours, but sometimes they can take several days to clear. There are usually no other symptoms, except perhaps an aversion to bright light or loss of appetite.

Another type are ‘cluster headaches’. Cluster headaches are severe unilateral headaches. Their duration ranges from 15 minutes to three hours or so. The onset of an attack is often rapid, without the preliminary signs that are characteristic of a migraine. Modern medicine does not offer a full explanation as to their cause, as yet.

Headaches and TCM

Pain in TCM arises when our Qi is not free flowing; for some reason it is stuck or stagnant. Headaches arise, then, when this is happening in our head, and TCM treatment of headache usually includes acupuncture to encourage the Qi to move more freely. Needles may be inserted near the pain itself, but quite often acupuncture points in the hands, feet, arms or legs may be used. These are points which are connected to the head by the meridian system and which are known to be able to regulate the Qi of the head.

TCM, however, is a holistic form of medicine, which means that it sees the person as a whole; the TCM practitioner will see the headache as part of a bigger picture which is the overall health of the patient. This will give him or her an understanding of why the headaches are happening, and treatment will thus be geared not only to symptomatic relief of the headache, but to improving the general health of the patient so that headaches will, in time, stop happening.

Is Acupuncture Helpful in the treatment of Headaches?

There have been plenty of studies done in the UK as to the effectiveness of acupuncture in treating headache and Migraine. One of the most recent was a very large scale trial involving 400 patients in GP practices (Vickers et al (2004)) which found that acupuncture was more than twice as effective as the standard (western medical) treatment, and resulted in better improvement in quality of life; this trial recommended that acupuncture should be more widely available for headache patients on the NHS and concluded that: “Acupuncture leads to persisting, clinically relevant benefits for primary care patients with chronic headache, particularly migraine”.

The British Acupuncture Council have published a briefing paper on the effectiveness of treating Migraine with Acupuncture, which can be accessed at by clicking Research, followed by Documents. This paper is also available from our clinic on request.


The Sean Barkes Clinic does not claim to cure any conventional medical disease states. Traditional Chinese Medicine seeks to re-establish and maintain the harmonious function of the human body-mind using tried and tested principles that have been discovered and matured over millennia. A Western medical diagnosis provides very little by way of insight in informing a Chinese Medical diagnosis. Patients usually recognise their own condition in terms of the medical disease category that they have been given by their GP or other conventional medical practitioner. The research presented here is merely an indication of the potential to draw parallels between Traditional Chinese Medicine and Modern Western Medicine.

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