Acupuncture, Acupressure, Piercings for Migraines

If you’re one of the nearly 40 million people in America who have an actual condition called migraine and you’ve likely tried a range of treatments to relieve the pain caused by your migraine headaches.

While medicine may help, it doesn’t work for everyone, and some drugs can have serious side effects. That’s why many people turn to alternative treatments like acupuncture, acupressure, or even special ear piercings.

If you’re thinking about one of these, here’s what you should know.

Acupuncture

This form of traditional Chinese medicine has been around for thousands of years. It’s based on the idea that your body has a natural flow of energy called chi that travels along routes known as meridians. If one of these pathways is blocked, your chi is unbalanced, and acupuncture can fix it.

During acupuncture, a practitioner inserts thin needles into your skin at certain places called acupoints.

The needles jolt your nerves, and that tells your body to release endorphins. These chemicals trigger that good feeling you get after a great workout. They also lower your response to pain.

Acupuncture can help treat migraines. In one study, 4 weeks of acupuncture led to fewer headaches for the next 5 months.

Even “sham” acupuncture -- when needles are used in places on the body that aren’t known acupuncture points -- can ease migraine pain, though not quite as well as the real thing.

The procedure is generally safe if you go to an experienced practitioner who uses sterile needles. Ask for someone who has experience working with people who have migraines. There are few, if any, negative side effects for most patients.

Some people find acupuncture to be more cost-effective than prescription drugs.

Acupressure

This treatment involves massaging certain points on the body to relax muscles, balance your natural energy flow, and relieve stress and pain. It’s also been part of Chinese medicine for more than 2,000 years.

A 2010 study showed that acupressure did a better job treating migraines than muscle relaxers, even up to 6 months later.

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Find these pressure points and massage yourself, or have someone do it for you. Even 4 or 5 seconds at a time can help ease your pain. You can do it several times a day:

Feng Chi, or GB20 -- short for gallbladder 20 -- refers to an area on the back of your neck. Feel the side of your head to find the ear bone, called the mastoid. Follow it to where your neck meets your skull. Use your thumbs to apply firm pressure and rub the area for a few seconds.

Jian Jing, or GB21, is commonly used to treat stress, neck pain, and headaches. It’s in your shoulder muscle, and you massage it by pinching the muscle between your thumb and middle finger.

He Gu, or LI4 -- short for large intestine 4 -- is a point on your hand that, like GB-21, can be targeted to relieve headaches, stress, neck pain, and more. You’ll find it in the thick part of the muscle between your thumb and index finger. Don’t massage here if you’re pregnant -- it could induce labor.

Zhong Zhu, or TE3 -- short for triple energizer -- is another hand point. It's between the knuckles of your pinky and ring finger. Massaging this can help relieve temporal headaches and neck and shoulder tension.

Daith Piercings

One unusual approach to treating migraine pain is piercing a cartilage fold on your ear just above the ear canal. It’s called a daith piercing. The idea is that it targets a specific pressure point, like acupuncture or acupressure, but in a more permanent way.

The piercing hits an area near the vagus nerve, which travels from your brain to multiple organs. It controls some of your body’s hormones. Stimulating this nerve has been a way to treat headaches in the past.

Although some people with frequent migraines say the piercing has helped, there are no studies or research to prove that it’s an effective treatment.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Stephen D. Silberstein, MD on July 17, 2017

Sources

Migraine Research Foundation: “Migraine Facts.”

UC San Diego Center for Integrative Medicine: “How Acupuncture Can Relieve Pain and Improve Sleep."

British Acupuncture Council: “Migraines.”

Harvard Health Publications: “Exercising to relax.”

Hawaii Medical Journal: “Understanding Endorphins and Their Importance in Pain Management.”

Canadian Medical Association Journal: “The role of acupuncture in the treatment of migraine.”

JAMA Internal Medicine: “Acupuncture for Migraine Prevention: Still Reaching for Convincing Evidence.”

The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine: “Sham acupuncture may be as efficacious as true acupuncture: a systematic review of clinical trials.”

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Acupuncture: In Depth.”

UCLA Center for East-West Medicine: “Acupressure for Beginners,” “Acupressure for Headache or Neck and Shoulder Tension,” “Acupressure Point GB20: Gallbladder 20 or Feng Chi (Wind Pool),” “Acupressure Point GB21: Gallbladder 21 or Jian Jing,” “Acupressure Point LI4: Large Intestine 6 or He Gu,” “Acupressure Point TE3: Triple Energizer 3 or Zhong Zhu (Central Islet).”

Cleveland Clinic: “Can An Unconventional Piercing Rid You of Migraine Pain?”

Minnesota Physical Medicine Blog by Dr. Thomas Cohn: “Headaches, Daith Piercings, and the Vagus Nerve.”

The Migraine Trust: “Hot topic: Daith piercing.”

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