Tension headaches can make you feel like a vice is squeezing your entire head, and if you’re among the millions prone to these crushing headaches, a new study brings some welcome news.
Folks with chronic tension headaches who received 20 true acupuncture sessions over two months had fewer headache days than people who received a superficial acupuncture technique, and these improvements lasted for close to eight months.
Exactly how acupuncture helps put the brakes on chronic tension headaches isn’t fully understood, but researchers do have their theories.
For one, “the acupuncture procedure provides relaxation to the patients with tension-type headaches, which helps to relax the scalp muscles,” explained study author Dr. Ying Li, a researcher at Chengdu University of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Chengdu, China.
The study included 218 people who had tension-type headaches at least 15 days a month.
Fully 68% of those in the true acupuncture group reported at least a 50% reduction in the number of headache days they experienced each month. That compares to half of those in the superficial acupuncture group.
True acupuncture aims to achieve what is known as a “deqi” sensation, which is characterized by tingling, numbness, heaviness. Superficial acupuncture does not go deep enough for this to happen.
For study participants who received true acupuncture, headache days decreased from 20 per month to seven.
By contrast, headache days decreased from 23 days per month to 12 days per month among participants who received superficial acupuncture.
Now, Li and colleagues plan to study how cost-effective acupuncture is for tension-type headaches when compared with conventional treatments.
The new study was published online June 22 in the journal Neurology.
For people with frequent tension-type headaches, preventive treatments to reduce headache frequency are available. But not everyone responds well to these drugs, and some people prefer to avoid them, said Dr. Brian Grosberg, director of the Hartford HealthCare Headache Center in Hartford, Conn.
Over-the-counter pain medications may help in the moment, but for people with chronic tension headaches, overuse can cause a “rebound effect” with more frequent headaches, he noted.
“Depending on the medication that is used too frequently, caution may be necessary with the medication’s effect on the liver, kidney and gastrointestinal systems,” said Grosberg, who reviewed the new study findings.
For prevention, medications like tricyclic antidepressants, serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, and muscle relaxants can provide relief. But these do have side effects, he said.
“We now have good evidence that acupuncture is an effective treatment for chronic tension-type headache,” Grosberg said. “This study helps move acupuncture from having an unproven status in complementary medicine to an acceptable evidence-based treatment for patients impacted by chronic tension-type headache.”
Kim Tsao, an acupuncturist in New York City, often uses a similar method to treat and prevent tension headaches.
“Tension headaches can also relate to neck and low back pain and insomnia,” Tsao said. As part of her treatment regimen, she will also activate points related to stress and other factors that contribute to tension headaches. The best part? Unlike many medications, acupuncture has no side effects, said Tsao, who also reviewed the new study.
The American Migraine Foundation has more on recognizing and treating tension headaches.
SOURCES: Ying Li, MD, PhD, researcher, Chengdu University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Chengdu, China; Brian Grosberg, MD, director, Hartford HealthCare Headache Center, Hartford, Conn.; Kim Tsao, acupuncturist, New York City; Neurology, June 22, 2022, online