Acupuncture and Migraines

A migraine is a type of headache, which can repetitively happen on one side or both sides of the head. Usually, it is a throbbing, stabbing pain, which can be debilitating to people.

Mechanisms of migraines: Abnormal brain cell activities trigger release of certain chemicals, causing changes of blood flow in the brain and surrounding tissues, according to an article in Medline Plus. CT’s or MRI’s do not show any organic changes in the brain.

What causes migraines:

  • Changed sleep-wake cycle can cause imbalance of chemicals in the brain. If cortisol, melatonin and other chemicals peak and drop at the wrong time, brain activities will change.
  • Artificial light, such as computer and TV light, can reduce melatonin secretion, which is associated with the hyper- excitability of brain cells and increases of certain chemicals linked with pain sensation. Many teenagers develop migraines after prolonged playing of computer games.
  • Missing meals can cause a decrease of blood sugar, triggering adrenaline release, thus changing activity of brain cells.
  • Strong coffee or tea can over-stimulate the sympathetic nervous system and lead to an imbalance between exciting and inhibiting chemicals in the brain.
  • Taking medication for headaches daily can profoundly change the balance of the chemicals in our bodies.
  • Hormone changes during puberty, menopause and menstruation can also influence brain blood flow. Women tend to develop migraines during menopause.
  • Birth control pills not only dramatically change your chemical balance and brain activities but also cause swelling of the blood vessels.
  • Certain smells or perfumes.
  • Certain foods: any processed, fermented, pickled, or marinated foods, baked goods, chocolate, dairy products, foods containing monosodium glutamate (MSG), foods containing tyramine, (including red wine, aged cheese, smoked fish, chicken livers, figs, and certain beans.). Meats containing nitrates (bacon, hot dogs, salami, cured meats), nuts, onions and peanut butter.
  • Stress can cause increases of cortisol, adrenaline and prolactin, which lead to abnormal activities of brain cells.
    Lyme disease can cause nerve damage.
  • Dehydration induces histamine release, which generally causes inflammation of the blood vessels, including brain blood vessels.
  • Some medications, such as beta-blockers, can cause swelling of the blood vessels.
  • Excessive noise can over-stimulate your sympathetic nervous system.
  • Women may have fewer migraine attacks during the last two trimesters because a high level of progesterone and a certain type of estrogen (estriol) stabilize their nervous systems.
  • Nicotine withdrawal can cause headaches. Weather changes may cause swelling of the blood vessels due to changes of humidity and air pressure.

What we can do to prevent migraines:

  • Go to sleep and wake up at regular times in order to maintain normal brain cell activity. It is harmful to go to sleep and wake up at random times. Healthy people hardly disturb their circadian cycle. Night-shift people rarely live up to 90 years old in good condition.
  • Avoid too much caffeine. If you have migraines currently, you need to gradually cut down the amount of caffeine that you take in. Technically, caffeine can constrict the blood vessels and help relieve headaches, but too much caffeine is always linked with frequent headaches, because caffeine can also over-stimulate your sympathetic nervous system, causing over-reaction to environmental changes. Moderation is the key.
  • If you want to quit smoking, do it gradually, because a sudden drop in nicotine can lead to hyper-excitability of brain cells. You might want to drink some green tea when you want to light a cigarette, because theonine in green tea can help us relax but still stay alert.
  • Do not drink wine or any other alcohol if you have frequent migraines. If you continue this habit, eventually the medication will not help you anymore.
  • Find out what causes your allergies: nuts, onions or other kinds of food. Abnormal levels of histamine due to allergies can change our brain cell activities.
  • Avoid intense exercises such as running more than 5 miles every day, which can trigger adrenaline release.
  • Avoid artificial sweeteners because they have similar structures as certain brain chemicals and thus can potentially change brain cell activities.
  • Avoid occurrences of low blood sugar by eating the right foods at the right times. Sweets make your blood sugar level go up and down like a roller coaster.
  • Apply a cool towel during a migraine attack; it helps to reduce the swelling of the blood vessels.
  • Avoid triggering food. Once you break the vicious cycle of your migraine attacks, your nervous system and its chemicals reestablish a new balance. You can eat small amounts of those triggering foods, such as chocolate, wine, and nuts, once or twice a week. Finding out the amount and frequency of each of these foods that your body can tolerate is the key to avoiding migraines and enjoying your life in the long run.
  • Drink half of your weight in fluid ounces of water at least three times a week. Meaning a person who weighs 150 pounds should drink 75 ounces of water 3 days during each week. When you are dehydrated, your blood vessels tend to constrict to maintain your blood pressure. Furthermore, dehydration can induce histamine release.

Research about acupuncture and migraines:

Li Y published results in Headache 2009 about how acupuncture can relieve the acute attacks of migraines. A total of 218 patients with migraine were recruited for the study; 180 met the inclusion criteria; 175 completed the callback process and were randomized into 3 groups. One group received real acupuncture, whereas subjects in the other 2 groups were treated with sham acupuncture. Each patient received 1 session of treatment and was observed over a period of 24 hours. The main outcome measure was the differences in visual analog scale (VAS scores for the pain level before treatment and 0.5, 1, 2, and 4 hours after treatment.)

Significant decreases relative to baseline in VAS scores were observed in the fourth hour after treatment. The VAS scores in the fourth hour after treatment decreased by a median of 1.0 cm, 0.5 cm, and 0.1 cm in the real acupuncture group, sham acupuncture group 1, and sham acupuncture group 2. Similarly, there was a significant difference in the change from baseline in VAS scores in the second hour after treatment among the 3 groups (P = .006), with only patients treated with real acupuncture showing a significant mean decrease in VAS score at this time: median decrease 0.7 cm (P < .001). Many patients in the acupuncture group experienced complete pain relief (40.7%).