When it comes to treating headaches, acupuncturists might as well stick their needles in at random, according to a new study, which finds that traditional acupuncture is no better than its sham counterpart at reducing migraines. Even so, either sort of needling was significantly more effective than no treatment at all.
Each year, millions of people suffer excruciating headaches associated with migraines. Drugs can reduce the pain but usually bring only modest relief. Instead, many turn to acupuncture, an ancient Chinese practice that involves inserting needles at strategic points along the body. Practitioners argue that correctly placed needles cure disorders by unblocking the flow of a person's vital energy. But although many hail acupuncture as an effective treatment, others want more evidence.
So Klaus Linde, a clinical epidemiologist at Technische University in Munich, Germany, decided to test acupuncture's value in treating migraines. Linde and colleagues selected 302 migraine patients aged 18 to 65 and divided them into groups that received Chinese acupuncture treatment, a sham acupuncture treatment that did not follow the Chinese rules, and no treatment. Each patient maintained a headache diary and completed standardized pain questionnaires before and after the therapy.
After 9 to 12 weeks of treatment, 15% of patients in the nontherapy group reported a 50% or greater drop in the number of days they had migraines. In the acupuncture and sham groups, the percentage experiencing a similar reduction was 51% and 53% respectively. "This means acupuncture is quite effective–-for at least German migraine patients--and needling the correct points does not seem to be very important," says Linde, whose team publishes its findings on 4 May in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The study shows that specific acupuncture points may not be as effective as believed, says Robert Jamison, a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School, who has found similar results with acupuncture for treating chronic neck pain. But others urge caution in interpreting the findings. "The results could be different if the migraine was diagnosed with the Chinese system of medicine and the procedure carried out by expert acupuncturists” instead of physicians with just a few hundred hours of training, says Mary Hardy, an integrative medicine physician at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California. Another drawback, she says, is that the trial was very short.