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Acupuncture may ease common tension headaches, study suggests

By Judy Packer-Tursman
Acupuncture may ease common tension headaches, study suggests
Acupuncture may help chronic tension headaches, a new study suggests. Photo by BillionPhotos.com/Shutterstock

June 22 (UPI) -- Acupuncture may help reduce chronic tension-type headaches, a common problem possibly triggered by tightened muscles in the back of the head or neck, a new study said.

The study was published Wednesday in the online issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

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"Tension-type headaches are one of the most common types of headaches, and people who have a lot of these headaches may be looking for alternatives to medication," said the study's author, Dr. Ying Li, of Chengdu University of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Chengdu, China.

"Our study found that acupuncture reduces the average number of headache days per month for those struggling with these painful and disruptive headache attacks," Li said.

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According to the Cleveland Clinic, researchers estimate that as many as 2 of 3 adults in the United States get tension headaches, though it's difficult to calculate since people don't always see their doctor for treatment.

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The new study is further proof that acupuncture is a safe and effective treatment for headaches, said Bill Reddy, a licensed acupuncturist in practice for more than 20 years in Alexandria, Va.

Reddy also is a director of the Integrative Health Policy Consortium, a national nonprofit organization that promotes integrative health in the United States. He noted that the National Institutes of Health's PubMed cites roughly 1,000 studies on acupuncture use for headaches.

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Of Wednesday's study, he said, "I wouldn't call it a landmark study ... but it is positive and could get American neurologists to send patients with this type of headache to acupuncturists."

Typically, NIH-sponsored studies cited are conducted by medical doctors with about 300 hours of training in acupuncture. By contrast, the Chinese studies usually are performed by people with 30-plus years of training on the needling technique, he said.

So, while American researchers may see bias in Chinese acupuncture studies, Reddy said, the reason they may have better outcomes is because of the researchers' more extensive training and experience.

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For this study, 218 people who were diagnosed with chronic tension-type headaches visited clinics every four weeks. They used diaries to record their symptoms and medication use. They had these headaches for and average of 22 days a month for 11 years.

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They were assigned randomly to receive either "true" acupuncture or "superficial" acupuncture -- two or three sessions per week, for a total of 20 sessions, for two months. Then, they were followed for an additional six months.

According to a news release, true acupuncture treatments "involved achieving a deqi [needle] sensation that involves placing and moving a needle in the body to reach a tingling, numbness or heaviness feeling."

By contrast, the superficial treatments "had a lesser depth in the body to avoid achieving the deqi sensation."

At the end of the study, 68% of the participants who received true acupuncture reported at least a 50% reduction in the monthly number of headache days, as did 50% of those who received superficial acupuncture. Only mild side effects were noted.

Reddy explained the results, saying that studies are normally done using a placebo group and sham needling that uses "a fake needle and no penetration of the skin."

But in this study, "there's a nonspecific effect by penetrating the skin" in the control group, he said. "So deep needling has a stronger effect, but shallowing needling will still have systemic effects on the body ... and when you're needled, it triggers endorphins and that reduces pain in most people."

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Li said more research is needed to determine the longer-term effectiveness of acupuncture and how it compares to other options.

"In comparing treatment options, cost-effectiveness is another important factor to evaluate," he added.

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