Their study, published in The Lancet's online edition, included more than 400 people who had two to six migraines per month. Participants got one of three treatments:
- Daily drug therapy, with beta-blockers as the first choice
- Sham acupuncture, with needles placed in spots not used in real acupuncture
- Real acupuncture
The researchers included Hans-Christoph Diener, MD, of the neurology department at Germany's University of Essen.
Acupuncture is widely used in Germany to treat migraines, Diener and colleagues write. It uses needles to unblock and balance the flow of energy (chi) to treat various illnesses, according to traditional Chinese medicine.
The researchers found that there was no real difference between real or sham acupuncture and standard drug therapy.
Participants kept diaries of their migraines during the study. The proportion of patients who had at least a 50% drop in days with migraines was similar -- 47% with real acupuncture, 39% with sham acupuncture, and 40% with drug therapy.
The average drop in days with migraines:
- 2.3 fewer migraine days with real acupuncture
- 1.3 fewer migraine days with sham acupuncture
- 2.1 fewer migraine days with drug therapy
Sham acupuncture's effectiveness was "surprising," write Diener and colleagues.
Patients in both acupuncture groups were treated with a similar number of needles and got the same amount of attention from acupuncturists. The only difference was where the needles were placed.
Perhaps patients expected their treatments to work, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, the researchers note. They add that "the decision whether acupuncture should be used in migraine prevention remains with the treating physician.
Diener's team started with a larger group of participants. But 125 people dropped out before treatment began, and 106 of them were in the drug group.
Those dropouts could have affected the study's results. However, other migraine studies have shown similar results from drug treatment, the researchers write.