Acupuncture Valuable Treatment for Headaches

| Published on 07 Oct | Posted in Research | Comments (0) | Permalink |

Acupuncture is a 'valuable treatment' for people who suffer from tension headaches .

Acupuncture for headache - a review, published by The Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health, 1/3/09.

Dr Adrian White is a Clinical Research Fellow at Peninsula Medical School. In this article, he summarises the findings of recent research on acupuncture for different types of headaches .

Headaches are common - in fact, the most common symptom experienced by the human race. There are various causes of headache, and of course careful conventional diagnosis is necessary in case the headache arises from some dangerous disorder - in which case acupuncture is not appropriate.

Most headaches fall into two general categories - tension type headache and migraine. These problems can persist for years. The two types of headache are clearly different, and most research investigates one or other type. In individual patients, however, it may be difficult to decide which type they have, and indeed some people may have both types together.

Acupuncture is widely used as a prevention for tensionheadaches, and generally involves a course of treatment sometimes with continuing top up appointments.

Acupuncture trials for headaches
Acupuncture trials have generally investigated one or other type of headache, and this is reflected in the recent publication of two separate Cochrane reviews, drawing together the results of good studies.  There was a previous Cochrane review, but it combined both types of headache.

Each of the new reviews had separate sections looking at whether acupuncture was:

a) more effective than ‘usual care’ ie. continuing the patient’s previous treatment;

b) more effective than ‘sham’ (placebo) acupuncture, which tries to answer the question of whether acupuncture has a ‘specific effect’ in addition to its expectation effects. This raises the important and unresolved question of what is a suitable ‘placebo’ for acupuncture: since acupuncture is now widely regarded as acting through the nervous system, then needles inserted in the ‘wrong’ site are likely to be giving a lower dose of treatment rather than an inactive placebo; and

c) whether acupuncture was as effective as other treatments used to reduce the frequency of headaches. These reviews did not explore whether acupuncture has any benefit as a treatment for acute headaches.

All Randomised Controlled Trials were included that used an observation period of at least 8 weeks, and for preference the reviewers used a measurement of ‘response’, ie. whether patients had a 50% reduction in the number of days with headache. The scientific standard of rigour of the studies was assessed using the new Cochrane method: ‘assessing the risk of bias’.

Tension type headache treatment and prevention
Eleven trials (six new) with a total of 2317 patients (median 62) were included.

Two large trials compared acupuncture to treatment of acute headache or routine care only. Both found statistically significant and clinically relevant short-term (up to three months) benefits of acupuncture over control.  They measured the outcomes response, number of headache days and pain intensity. Long-term effects beyond three months were not investigated.

Three of the four trials comparing acupuncture with physiotherapy, massage or relaxation had important methodological or reporting shortcomings. Their findings are difficult to interpret, but collectively suggest slightly better results for some outcomes in the control groups than with acupuncture.

The available evidence suggests that acupuncture could be a valuable non-pharmacological treatment in patients with frequent episodic or chronic tension-type headaches.

Read Dr White’s entire article Acupuncture for headache - a review on the The Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health’s website.

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