In the study, almost 500 adults were treated with either traditional Chinese acupuncture or a sham treatment in which acupuncture needles were inserted in nonspecific points. The acupuncture treatment points were previously used to study migraine. Participants did not know which type of acupuncture treatment they were receiving during the four-week study.
After completing the study, all of the participants -- including those in the sham group -- reported fewer days with migraines than before the study began. Prior to the study, most suffered monthly migraines, on average six days of migraines a month. After the completing the study, they reported migraines on an average of three days in the month.
In the month following the treatment, all of the participants also reported improvements in the frequency and intensity of migraines.
However, lasting effects were seen only in study participants who received traditional acupuncture. Three months after treatment, people who received traditional Chinese acupuncture continued to report a reduction in migraine days, frequency, and intensity. People who received the sham treatment did not.
Although the study only showed a marginal benefit of real acupuncture over sham acupuncture, researcher Claudia Witt, MD, of University Medical Center Charité in Berlin, says previous research suggests that people who respond best to acupuncture treatments are those who have not been helped by other treatments and those who had past positive experiences with acupuncture.
Albrecht Molsberger, MD, a medical acupuncture specialist who wrote an editorial on the study, says that even in sham acupuncture, the simple insertion of needles into the skin, regardless of the exact points of insertion, can lead to fewer migraines and reduced pain.
“Putting needles in the patient twice weekly over six weeks does have a [physical] effect, but if we did it the Chinese way, we might be better off,” he says.
A previous study of 300 people showed that acupuncture is more effective than no acupuncture in the treatment of migraine. Another study of nearly 800 people showed that 11 acupuncture treatments over six weeks were at least as effective as the blood pressure drugs called beta-blockers -- often used for migraine prevention -- taken daily for six months, Molsberger tells WebMD.
“Acupuncture should be an option for the first-line treatment of migraine to supplement other non-[drug] treatment options,” he writes in his editorial.
Seymour Diamond, MD, who is executive chair of the National Headache Foundation, disagrees.
“That would be a serious mistake. Only after a patient has had a fair trial on both [preventive] -- if necessary -- and [rescue] medicine should they try acupuncture,” he says.
Is the benefit to acupuncture for migraine mostly a placebo effect, as a number of previous studies suggest?
“In any type of treatment, there is the expectation of results. And doctor’s interest alone should help a patient,” Diamond tells WebMD.
Ultimately, results will vary by the individual. “I don’t think acupuncture is really effective, but I never discourage a patient who wants to try it,” he says.