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Acupuncture for Migraines

Acupuncture for migraines

Are you tired of battling migraines that disrupt your life and leave you searching for relief?

For many people, migraine headaches go beyond mere inconvenience; the throbbing pain, nausea, and sensitivity to light can interrupt work, social life, and even simple daily tasks.

Treating the complexity of migraines requires a holistic approach—one that draws deeply from both the latest scientific research and traditional medical knowledge systems.

In this blog, we will explore the causes of migraine headaches and the life changing benefits of acupuncture for migraines.

Our goal is to empower you by providing information and support, to help you better understand your migraines and your options for managing them.

Understanding Migraines

Migraines are a complex neurological condition characterized by recurrent episodes of moderate to severe headaches. They are believed to involve a combination of genetic, environmental, and neurovascular factors. The exact cause of migraines is not fully understood, but it's thought to involve abnormal brain activity affecting nerve signals, chemicals, and blood vessels in the brain.

In the United States, migraines are a prevalent health issue. According to epidemiological studies:

  • Over 10% of the population (including children) experience migraines.

  • Women are three times more likely than men to have migraines, with hormonal factors playing a significant role.  In a large US survey, 17.1% of women and 5.6% of men reported having migraine symptoms.

  • Migraines often start in adolescence or early adulthood and can persist throughout a person's life, though their frequency and severity may fluctuate over time.

Understanding the causes, types, and prevalence of migraines is crucial for developing effective treatment strategies and improving the quality of life for those affected by this debilitating condition.

Types of Migraines

There are several types of migraines:

Migraine without aura

This is the most common type, characterized by pulsating pain on one side of the head, sensitivity to light and sound, nausea, and sometimes vomiting.

Migraine with aura

About a third of migraine sufferers experience aura, which involves sensory disturbances or visual phenomena (like flashes of light or blind spots) that typically precede the headache phase.

Chronic migraine

Defined as having migraines on 15 or more days per month, with at least 8 days meeting criteria for migraine or responding to migraine-specific treatment.

Menstrual migraine

These migraines occur around the time of menstruation and are thought to be triggered by hormonal changes.

Migraine Symptoms

Migraine symptoms can vary widely among individuals and even between migraine episodes in the same person. The hallmark symptom of a migraine is a moderate to severe throbbing headache, often on one side of the head, although it can also affect both sides. Here some typical symptoms associated with migraines:


The headache associated with migraines is usually pulsating or throbbing in nature. It can be moderate to severe in intensity and often worsens with physical activity. Some people may experience pain behind one eye or in a specific area of the head.

Nausea and vomiting

Migraines frequently cause gastrointestinal disturbances, including nausea and sometimes vomiting. These symptoms can contribute to the overall discomfort and debilitation of an attack.

Visual disturbances (aura)

Not all migraines include aura, but for those that do, visual disturbances are common. This can include seeing flashes of light, zigzag lines, blind spots, or temporary vision loss. Aura symptoms typically develop gradually over several minutes and usually precede the headache phase.

Dizziness or vertigo

Some individuals may experience dizziness, vertigo (a sensation of spinning), or difficulty with balance during a migraine attack.

Sensitivity to light (photophobia)

Many migraine sufferers become highly sensitive to light during an attack. Bright lights, sunlight, and even artificial light sources can exacerbate symptoms and cause discomfort.

Sensitivity to sound (phonophobia)

Loud noises or certain sounds can trigger or worsen migraines in some individuals. They may find it necessary to seek out quiet, dark environments during an attack.

Sensitivity to smell (osmophobia)

Certain odors or strong smells may trigger or worsen migraine symptoms in some people.

Neck pain

Neck pain or stiffness is another symptom that some migraine sufferers experience, especially during the headache phase.

Cognitive symptoms

Known as "brain fog," cognitive symptoms during migraines can include difficulty concentrating, confusion, and impaired thinking.

Aura without headache (silent migraine)

In some cases, individuals may experience aura symptoms without the subsequent headache phase. This is sometimes referred to as a silent migraine or acephalgic migraine.

It's important to note that migraine symptoms can vary in duration and intensity from person to person and from one migraine episode to another. Additionally, not everyone with migraines experiences all of these symptoms, and some individuals may have additional symptoms not listed here.

Tracking symptoms and discussing them with a healthcare provider can help in accurately diagnosing migraines and developing an effective treatment plan.

What Happens During a Migraine?

Migraines are more than just bad headaches; they are a complex neurological condition. Here is a simplified explanation of what happens in the brain and nervous system during a migraine:

Neurological Hyperactivity

Migraines often start with abnormal hyperactivity in the brain. This can involve electrical impulses that spread across the brain, particularly in the cortical areas. This hyperactivity can disrupt normal brain function and lead to the onset of migraine symptoms, including the sensory disturbances associated with aura, such as seeing flashes of light or experiencing tingling sensations.

Trigeminal Nerve Activation

The trigeminal nerve, which is responsible for sensation in the face and head, becomes activated. This activation releases chemicals like calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP), which play a key role in migraine pain.

Inflammation and Blood Vessel Changes

The release of CGRP and other chemicals causes inflammation and dilation of blood vessels in the brain. This can lead to the throbbing, pulsing pain that characterizes migraines.

Central Sensitization

Prolonged migraine attacks can cause something called central sensitization. Central sensitization is a process that make the brain overly responsive to pain signals. This means migraines tend to become more frequent and severe over time.

Common Migraine Triggers

Migraine headaches can be triggered by a variety of factors, and understanding these triggers is crucial for managing and potentially preventing episodes. Here are some common migraine triggers:

Hormonal changes

Fluctuations in estrogen levels, especially in women, can trigger migraines. This often occurs around menstruation, pregnancy, menopause, or when starting or stopping hormonal contraception.


Emotional stress and tension can provoke migraines. Stress management techniques such as relaxation exercises, mindfulness, and regular exercise may help reduce migraine frequency.

Sensory stimuli

Bright lights, loud noises, strong smells (perfumes, smoke), and intense visual stimuli (like screens or flickering lights) can trigger migraines in sensitive individuals.

Sleep disturbances

Changes in sleep patterns, including insufficient sleep or excessive sleep, can trigger migraines. Establishing a regular sleep schedule and practicing good sleep hygiene can be beneficial.

Certain foods

Some foods and beverages are known to trigger migraines in susceptible individuals. Common culprits include aged cheeses, processed meats (like hot dogs and bacon), chocolate, caffeine, and alcoholic beverages (especially red wine).

Physical factors

Intense physical exertion, exertional heat, and changes in altitude (like flying or mountain climbing) can trigger migraines in some people.

Weather changes

Changes in weather patterns, such as changes in barometric pressure or high humidity, have been reported to trigger migraines in susceptible individuals.


Some medications, including certain vasodilators and hormonal medications, can trigger migraines as a side effect. It's important to discuss with a healthcare provider if you suspect medication may be contributing to your migraines.

Environmental factors

Exposure to certain environmental pollutants, allergens, or chemicals can trigger migraines in sensitive individuals.

Managing migraines often involves identifying and avoiding triggers whenever possible. Keeping a migraine diary to track potential triggers and patterns can be helpful in pinpointing individual triggers and developing effective management strategies.

Potential Benefits of Acupuncture for Migraines

Acupuncture is an ancient healing practice that is now backed by decades of scientific research. Studies show it offers a range of potential benefits for migraines through its effects on physiology. Here are some of the potential benefits of acupuncture for migraines:

Modulation of Neurotransmitter Release

Acupuncture has been shown to influence the release of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and endorphins. These biochemical changes can help modulate pain perception and reduce the frequency and intensity of migraine episodes.

Reducing Inflammation

By stimulating specific points on the body, acupuncture can reduce inflammatory markers and cytokines, which are often elevated during migraine attacks. This anti-inflammatory effect may contribute to decreased migraine severity and frequency.

Regulation of Blood Flow

Acupuncture improves cerebral and extracranial blood flow, alleviating the vascular component of migraines. Proper blood flow regulation can prevent the onset of migraine symptoms related to vasodilation and vasoconstriction.

Activation of the Parasympathetic Nervous System

Acupuncture can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting relaxation and reducing stress levels. Since stress is a known trigger for migraines, this calming effect may help in preventing migraine attacks.

Modulation of Pain Pathways

Acupuncture can alter the central processing of pain signals by affecting the activity of the central nervous system, including the spinal cord and brainstem. This modulation can help in decreasing the sensitivity to pain that characterizes migraines.

Improvement of Sleep Quality

Regular acupuncture treatment is associated with better sleep quality. Improved sleep can reduce the frequency of migraines, as poor sleep is a common trigger for migraine attacks.

Reduction of Muscle Tension

Acupuncture can relieve muscle tension in the neck and shoulders, which are common areas of tightness in migraine sufferers. Reduced muscle tension can decrease the likelihood of tension-type headaches that can trigger migraines.

Enhancement of Endogenous Opioid Production

Acupuncture stimulates the production and release of endogenous opioids, such as enkephalins and endorphins, which have natural pain-relieving properties. This can lead to a reduction in migraine pain and improve overall pain management.

Psychological Benefits

Acupuncture can provide psychological benefits, including reduced anxiety and depression, which are common comorbidities in migraine patients. Improved mental health can contribute to a reduction in migraine frequency and severity.

These benefits, supported by various clinical studies, suggest that acupuncture may be a viable complementary treatment option for individuals suffering from migraines.

Potential Benefits of Chinese Herbal Medicine for Migraines

In additional to acupuncture, traditional East Asian Medicine also uses botanical ingredients to treat and prevent migraines. Thousands of traditional plant based formulas have been identified as having medicinal properties for migraine sufferers. Some of the potential benefits of Chinese Herbal Medicine for migraines include:

Anti-inflammatory Properties

Many traditional Chinese herbal formulas contain compounds with anti-inflammatory effects. By reducing inflammation, these herbs can help alleviate the inflammatory processes associated with migraine pathophysiology.

Regulation of Neurotransmitter Activity

Certain Chinese herbs have been found to modulate neurotransmitter levels, such as serotonin and dopamine. This regulation can help stabilize mood and pain perception, potentially reducing migraine frequency and intensity.

Vasodilation and Blood Flow Improvement

Some Chinese herbs promote vasodilation and improve microcirculation. Enhanced blood flow can prevent the vascular dysfunction often linked to migraine attacks, thereby reducing the occurrence of migraines.

Antioxidant Effects

The antioxidant properties of specific Chinese herbs can combat oxidative stress, which is implicated in the pathogenesis of migraines. Reducing oxidative stress can help protect neural tissues and prevent migraine onset.

Neuroprotective Actions

Certain herbal components exhibit neuroprotective effects, shielding neurons from damage and dysfunction. This can help maintain the integrity of neural pathways involved in pain signaling, reducing the risk and severity of migraines.

Hormonal Regulation

Traditional Chinese herbal medicine can influence the endocrine system, helping to balance hormones. Hormonal imbalances are a known trigger for migraines, particularly in women, and regulating these can help mitigate migraine episodes.

Stress Reduction and Anxiolytic Effects

Several Chinese herbs have adaptogenic properties that help reduce stress and anxiety levels. Since stress is a major trigger for migraines, reducing stress can lower the likelihood of migraine attacks.

Detoxification and Liver Function Support

Herbs used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) can support liver detoxification processes. Efficient liver function can reduce the build-up of toxins that might trigger or exacerbate migraines.

Analgesic Effects

Certain herbal formulations have direct analgesic properties, providing pain relief without the side effects often associated with pharmaceutical painkillers. This natural pain relief can be beneficial in managing acute migraine pain.

Improvement of Digestive Health

East Asian Medicine places a strong emphasis on the role of digestive health in overall well-being. Improving digestive function through herbal medicine can help reduce gastrointestinal issues that may trigger or worsen migraines.

These potential benefits illustrate the multifaceted approach of Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine in managing migraines, providing both symptomatic relief and addressing the underlying causes.

The effects of Chinese Herbal Medicine on migraines complement the effects of acupuncture for migraines. The combination of acupuncture and herbal medicine can provide a comprehensive, holistic approach to preventing and treating migraine headaches.

Lifestyle Changes to Potentially Help Manage Migraines

Having discussed the benefits of acupuncture and herbal medicine for migraines, we now turn our focus to lifestyle changes that can help manage migraines. These strategies will make both herbal medicine and acupuncture even more effective at preventing or treating migraine headaches:

Identifying and Avoiding Triggers

Keeping a migraine diary to track potential triggers, such as certain foods, environmental factors, or stressors, can help identify patterns and avoid triggers.

Regular Sleep Schedule

Maintaining a consistent sleep routine, with the same bedtime and wake-up time daily, can help regulate the body’s internal clock and reduce the frequency of migraines.


Staying well-hydrated by drinking plenty of water throughout the day can prevent dehydration, a common trigger for migraines.

Balanced Diet

Consuming a balanced, whole foods diet can help manage blood sugar levels and provide essential nutrients. Avoiding trigger foods, such as those high in tyramine can also reduce migraine occurrences.

Regular Exercise

Engaging in regular physical activity, such as walking, swimming, or yoga, can help reduce stress and improve overall physical health, which may in turn decrease migraine frequency and severity.

Stress Management

Practicing stress-reducing techniques, such as mindfulness meditation, deep breathing exercises, or progressive muscle relaxation, can help manage stress, a significant trigger for migraines.

Good Posture

Maintaining proper posture, especially during prolonged activities like sitting or using a computer, can reduce tension in the neck and shoulders, which can contribute to migraines.

Limiting Screen Time

Reducing exposure to screens and taking regular breaks can help minimize eye strain and digital eye fatigue, both of which can trigger migraines.

Proper Lighting

Ensuring adequate lighting in work and living spaces can reduce eye strain. Avoiding fluorescent lighting and opting for natural light when possible can also help.

Temperature Regulation

Avoiding extreme temperatures and ensuring a comfortable living and working environment can help reduce the likelihood of migraines triggered by temperature changes.

Caffeine Management:

Limiting caffeine intake and avoiding sudden changes in caffeine consumption can help manage migraines, as both too much caffeine and caffeine withdrawal can be triggers.

Before beginning any new treatments and making adjustments to your lifestyle be sure to consult with a healthcare provider to ensure they are safe and suitable for you and your condition.

Acupuncture for Migraines: Experience Natural Relief

Migraines are a debilitating condition that affects millions worldwide, but there is hope beyond conventional treatment! By leading a healthy lifestyle and exploring options such as acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine, it is possible to experience lasting, natural relief from migraines.

If you are ready to take the next step in your migraine healing journey, Empowered You Acupuncture is here to help. Our skilled and dedicated acupuncturists, Erica Yang, MTOM, L.Ac and Dr. Joshua Park, DSOM, L.Ac specialize in migraines and other complex neurological conditions. We have an over 90% success rate in helping our migraine patients get back to living their lives! Contact us today to schedule your consultation.


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