Acupuncture for preventing migraine attacks

Acupuncture for preventing migraine attacks

Bottom line

The available evidence suggests that a course of acupuncture consisting of at least six treatment sessions can be a valuable option for people with migraine.


Individuals with migraine have repeated attacks of severe headache, usually just on one side and often with vomiting. Acupuncture is a therapy in which thin needles are inserted into the skin at particular points. It originated in China, and is now used in many countries to treat people with migraine. We evaluated whether acupuncture reduces the number of episodes of migraine. We looked at the number of people in whom the number of migraine days per month was reduced by half or more than half.

Key results

For this update, we reviewed 22 trials with 4985 people, published up to January 2016. We omitted five trials from the original review because they included people who had had migraine for less than 12 months. We included five new trials in this update.

In four trials, acupuncture added to usual care or treatment of migraine on onset only (usually with pain-killers) resulted in 41 in 100 people having the frequency of headaches at least halved, compared to 17 of 100 people given usual care only.

In 15 trials, acupuncture was compared with ‘fake’ acupuncture, where needles are inserted at incorrect points or do not penetrate the skin. The frequency of headaches halved in 50 of 100 people receiving true acupuncture, compared with 41 of 100 people receiving ‘fake’ acupuncture. The results were dominated by three good quality large trials (with about 1200 people) showing that the effect of true acupuncture was still present after six months. There were no differences in the number of side effects of real and ‘fake’ acupuncture, or the numbers dropping out because of side effects.

In five trials, acupuncture was compared to a drug proven to reduce the frequency of migraine attacks, but only three trials provided useful information. At three months, headache frequency halved in 57 of 100 people receiving acupuncture, compared with 46 of 100 people taking the drug. After six months, headache frequency halved in 59 of 100 people receiving acupuncture, compared with 54 of 100 people taking the drug. People receiving acupuncture reported side effects less often than people receiving drugs, and were less likely to drop out of the trial.

Our findings about the number of days with migraine per month can be summarized as follows. If people have six days with migraine per month on average before starting treatment, this would be reduced to five days in people receiving only usual care, to four days in those receiving fake acupuncture or a prophylactic drug, and to three and a half days in those receiving true acupuncture.