Written by Lara McQuade L. Ac.
Around 90% of people worldwide experience a headache at some point in their lives (Robbins, 2021).
Acupuncture is a safe, gentle and effective treatment for headaches without the harmful side effects of medication.
No wonder headache is one of the most common ailments for which people seek acupuncture treatment. Several headache conditions can improve with acupuncture treatment, including: tension type headache, migraine headache, mixed headache, cervicogenic headache, and occipital neuralgia.
Location of acupuncture points to treat headache vary. Sometimes acupuncturists will place needles in the muscles of the scalp and neck for headache. However, headaches will often be treated with acupuncture points at other areas of the body such as the arms and legs.
1. Tension Type Headache
Research has shown that acupuncture may reduce the frequency of tension type headaches (Nielsen, 2017). Tension Type Headache is by far the most common type of primary headache, affecting about 80% of the population (Ertsey et al, 2019).
Tension type headaches are usually mild to moderate, not severe enough to seek emergency medical care, yet can still be very disruptive to people’s lives. Tension headaches are felt in the following areas (Turkistani et al, 2021):
Pain at the temples
Pressure like a band around the forehead
Pain and tension in the muscles of the neck, shoulders and upper back
Pain behind the eyes
2. Migraine Headache
Migraine headaches are not quite as common as tension type headaches, but the pain and other migraine symptoms can be severe and disabling. Migraine Disorder is the number one cause of disability worldwide for young women (Steiner et al, 2020). Fortunately, acupuncture can help for migraine symptoms too (Urits et al, 2020).
Some common symptoms of migraine headache are:
Symptoms that last several days
Headaches are just one symptom of migraine disorder, and other symptoms can include:
Nausea and vomiting
Light and noise sensitivity
Sensitivity to strong smells like scented candles, detergents, or car exhaust
3. Mixed Headache
Mixed headache is the way to describe the condition in which someone often gets more than one type of headache. For example, this most often describes mixed tension headache and migraine headache. Oftentimes, people experience tension headaches more frequently, and a severe episode precedes a migraine headache.
While some academics argue over whether the term, “mixed headache” is needed, with headache symptoms few people have symptoms that neatly fit into one box or another. Acupuncture is a unique approach that allows treatment targeted at the exact headache pattern that day.
4. Cervicogenic Headache
Sometimes headache pain may actually be generated from a problem at the neck. This is known as cervicogenic headache. Neck conditions such as arthritis, nerve root impingement, whiplash injury, or other neck conditions may be involved.
Acupuncture may be helpful for this type of pain by taking the approach of treating the neck problem directly, to indirectly affect the headache (Chu, 2016).
5. Occipital Neuralgia
In this condition, pain is caused by irritation, injury or compression of the occipital nerves at the back of the head.
Symptoms of occipital neuralgia:
Brief episodes of sharp, shooting pain at the back of the head
May also have constant low grade pain
Pain may be one-sided or bilateral
This type of headache can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from migraine headache. Acupuncture treatment will often be targeted to reduce tension of muscles and fascia at the back of the head, to alleviate compression of the nerve. (Pan et al, 2021)
Lara McQuade, L.Ac. is a pain specialist at Lokahi Acupuncture. With a strong background in chronic pain, she specializes in headache, neck pain and neurological conditions. If you would like to schedule a free online consultation with her, click here and follow the link.
Barmherzig, R., & Kingston, W. (2019). Occipital Neuralgia and Cervicogenic Headache: Diagnosis and Management. Current neurology and neuroscience reports, 19(5), 20. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11910-019-0937-8
Djavaherian DM, Guthmiller KB. Occipital Neuralgia. [Updated 2022 May 8]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538281/
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Pan, W., Peng, J., & Elmofty, D. (2021). Occipital Neuralgia. Current pain and headache reports, 25(9), 61. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11916-021-00972-1
Robbins M. S. (2021). Diagnosis and Management of Headache: A Review. JAMA, 325(18), 1874–1885. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2021.1640
Steiner, T. J., Stovner, L. J., Jensen, R., Uluduz, D., Katsarava, Z., & Lifting The Burden: the Global Campaign against Headache (2020). Migraine remains second among the world’s causes of disability, and first among young women: findings from GBD2019. The journal of headache and pain, 21(1), 137. https://doi.org/10.1186/s10194-020-01208-0
Turkistani, A., Shah, A., Jose, A. M., Melo, J. P., Luenam, K., Ananias, P., Yaqub, S., & Mohammed, L. (2021). Effectiveness of Manual Therapy and Acupuncture in Tension-Type Headache: A Systematic Review. Cureus, 13(8), e17601. https://doi.org/10.7759/cureus.17601
Urits, I., Patel, M., Putz, M. E., Monteferrante, N. R., Nguyen, D., An, D., Cornett, E. M., Hasoon, J., Kaye, A. D., & Viswanath, O. (2020). Acupuncture and Its Role in the Treatment of Migraine Headaches. Neurology and therapy, 9(2), 375–394. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40120-020-00216-1