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Acupuncture for headaches

On this page

  1. Overview
  2. Symptoms
  3. Types
  4. Causes
  5. Treatment
  6. Self-care tips
  7. Factsheet

1. Overview

Headaches are one of the most frequent reasons for medical treatment, in both general practice and neurology clinics. Headaches occur in up to 80% of the UK adult population, and are more prevalent in women (65% of cases in one survey). Symptoms begin before the age of 10 years in 15% of people with chronic tension headaches but prevalence declines with age.

Tension type headache is the term used for infrequent and frequent episodic, as well as chronic, tension headaches.

2. Symptoms

Tension headaches are characterised by pain that is typically mild or moderate in intensity, bilateral, and pressing or tightening in quality, but does not worsen with physical activity. There may be accompanying photophobia, but no nausea. The headaches are daily or very frequent, and last from minutes to days. Frequency of headaches can vary from person to person.

3. Types of headaches

There are many different types of headache pain. The most common ones in western medicine are:

  • Tension-type headache
  • Cluster headaches
  • Headaches and migraines

Tension-type headache

These are the most common type of headache and vary from mild to moderate pain levels.

Cluster headaches

This type is intense and feels like a burning or piercing pain behind or around one eye, either throbbing or constant. They're called "cluster headaches" because they tend to happen to three times per day.

In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) there are around 15 different types of headaches. They can be caused by the environment such as wind or from problems with the internal organs, such as the liver and irregular emotions such as stress.

4. Causes

The causes of headaches are numerous and include:

  1. Stress
  2. Having a cold or the flu
  3. Drinking too much alcohol
  4. Bad posture
  5. Poor eyesight
  6. Tiredness
  7. Dehydration
  8. Environmental (cold wind)
  9. Taking too many painkillers

5. Acupuncture for headaches

The aim of conventional treatment is to reduce the frequency, severity, and duration of the headache, with minimal adverse effects from treatment. Prescribed drug treatment and over-the-counter medications such as paracetamol and ibuprofen are taken to alleviate headaches. Acupuncture is as good as painkillers but without the side effects.

Acupuncture can relief all types of headaches by reducing stress, relieving tension and regulating hormone levels and the nervous system in the body. Needles are inserted into specific points for pain relief.

Evidence from the most up-to-date and highest quality systematic reviews that examined clinical trials comparing acupuncture against sham acupuncture showed that there are clinically relevant benefits of receiving acupuncture treatment provided headache relief. Randomised controlled trials have found that the effects of acupuncture are better than painkillers for treating headaches intensity and frequency for long term.

6. Self-care

Routine care should be given including lifestyle changes, for example:

  • Eat 3 meals a day
  • Sleep early and for around 8 hours
  • Reduce exposure to stress

My unique treatment style can reduce the frequency of headaches including chronic headaches. Beware of fake acupuncture being performed by practitioners not fully qualified such as physios and osteopaths.

Watch my animated video below, which explains how acupuncture can treat headaches.

7. Headaches factsheet

For further information, read the acupuncture for headaches factsheet.