Migraines can range from the odd day of sharp headaches to full-on conditions with light and sound sensitivity, nausea and vomiting and severe, debilitating pain. They are thought to begin as an electrical phenomenon in the higher brain that affects blood vessels, biochemistry, and causes inflammation. Chronic migraines are thought to affect approximately 2% of the population, which is partly due to the large array of health problems that can cause them – stress, insomnia, digestive disorders, spinal problems and hormonal changes are among the many potential factors1Mayo Clinic, 2020. Whatever the cause is, acupuncture can help reduce their frequency and severity.
Physiological effects of acupuncture
Acupuncture has been found to induce the following effects:
- Providing pain relief – by stimulating nerves located in muscles and other tissues, acupuncture leads to release of endorphins and other neurochumoral factors and changes the processing of pain in the brain and spinal cord2Zhao, Z. “Neural mechanism underlying acupuncture analgesia“, 2008.
- Reducing inflammation – by promoting release of vascular and immunomodulatory factors3Choi.D et al., “Acupuncture-mediated inhibition of inflammation facilitates significant functional recovery after spinal cord injury“, 2010.
- Reducing the degree of cortical spreading depression (an electrical wave in the brain associated with migraine) and plasma levels of calcitonin gene-related peptide and substance P (both implicated in the pathophysiology of migraine)4Shi, H. et al., “Effect of electroacupuncture on cortical spreading depression and plasma CGRP and substance P contents in migraine rats“, 2010.
- Modulating extracranial and intracranial blood flow5Byeon, H. et al., “Effects of GV20 Acupuncture on Cerebral Blood Flow Velocity of Middle Cerebral Artery and Anterior Cerebral Artery Territories, and CO2 Reactivity During Hypocapnia in Normal Subjects“, 2011.
- Affecting serotonin (5-hydroxytriptamine) levels in the brain6Cabyoglu, M. et al., “The mechanism of acupuncture and clinical applications“, 2005. (Serotonin may be linked to the initiation of migraines; 5-HT agonists (triptans) are used against acute attacks.)
Chinese medicine view of migraines
Chinese medicine theory classifies migraine either due to external factors – such as wind, cold, dampness, or heat – or an internal disruption, and there are a number of clues as to which type of cause is responsible. For instance, migraines short in duration are typically externally-caused; whereas persistent migraines are typically due to disruptions in liver, spleen or kidney functions. In fact, the location and type of pain also tell us which is the problem area involved, as demonstrated by the graphic below:
With this personalised approach to diagnosing the cause of migraines (and in fact tension headaches too), acupuncture can address the root causes of the pain and resolve it instead of simply suppressing it temporarily.