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Ask the Expert
Ask an expert - neuro and psycho logical - headache
Q: My 15 year old daughter has had chronic migraine for a year. She has constant symptoms. She is under Great Ormond Street Hospital who agreed with our suggestion to try acupuncture as prophylactic treatment as she prefers not to try further medication. She has now had six sessions of medical acupuncture, once weekly, from a GP who specialises in this. She has not had any beneficial response yet, and the GP thinks there is no point in having further acupuncture sessions as there is no chance of benefit now. If it might be helpful we could continue with a different acupuncturist. Looking at the trials that were assessed for the relevant Cochrane review and NICE guidelines, most of these involved at least 10 treatment sessions. Before we stop a potentially useful treatment, we wondered whether in your experience with a chronic condition, benefit can sometimes be seen after more sessions even if no initial response.
A: The short answer is 'yes'!
We were heartened by the fact that the NICE guidelines on the treatment of headaches were based on an assessment of trials using traditional chinese acupuncture rather than medical acupuncture, and that one of our members was on the expert panel. This has two consequences. First, it may be the case that the treatments administered by the doctor did not use the same acupuncture points as those used in Chinese medicine, which would clearly affect the outcome. Second, some of the trials will almost certainly have tailored the points used to the specific constitutional balances of the individual patients. While there may be considerable overlap in the points used for treating all headaches most point 'prescriptions' allow sufficient flexibility for tailoring the treatment to the individual's needs.
We are not demeaning the work done by medical acupuncturists, most of which we believe to be very good when practised within scope and on the basis of good evidence. The great strength of Chinese medicine, however, is that a symptom by itself, however well differentiated, does not point automatically to a diagnosis and treatment, and ten patients with identical symptoms from a western point of view may have ten different diagnoses and treatments from a Chinese perspective. The skill of the practitioner lies in knowing how a symptom relates to and derives from the overall pattern of balance. This might mean that someone treated without regard to this may show very limited or even no progress, and it would be unfortunate to draw conclusions about the efficacy of acupuncture based on this. This is why we occasionally become disheartened when trials 'prove' that acupuncture has no effect when the treatment is not one which a traditional practitioner would ever do, the same points over and over again without any assessment and refinement.
Although we believe it would be worth your daughter's while to have further treatment, we have to remain realistic and say that not all patients respond positively to treatment. There are occasions when treatment can take a long time to achieve change, but even when the symptom does not shift the practitioner can often tell from their diagnostic work that there is progress and change will happen. Equally, BAcC members are responsible enough to tell someone that in their view a course of treatment has done little and is not worth pursuing. Most BAcC members review progress after four or five sessions to discuss with the patient what has happened and to agree together how to proceed.
Even before the NICE announcement, however, the treatment of headaches and migraines is an area where there is a large body of evidence of acupuncture beign beneficial, and although the designs of some of the studies have fallen short of the standards of acceptance in the west, the sheer volume of positive trials suggests that acupuncture will have a continuing role to play in the management of this condition.
Q: Please could you tell me if acupuncture can prevent hormonal migraines which occur during ovulation? I suffer from migraines with aura every month at the end of the ovulation time. Can acupuncture be used to prevent these types of migraines and how would it do so?
A: As you may have seen in the press recently with the announcement of the NICE Guidelines for tension headaches, acupuncture is being increasingly recognised as a worthwhile option for treating headaches, and is certainly high on the list of conditions for which patients seek treatment with BAcC members. As our factsheet shows. Please click here
the evidence is encouraging and migraine is one of the conditions where we believe the evidence is good enough to allow us to claim so in our marketing,and for which we continue to make our case regularly with the ASA.
Migraines are differentiated in many ways, however, a medical term meaning they can arise from a number of different causes. This is equally the case in Chinese medicine; one old but influential article in the Journal of Chinese Medicine outlines 57 varieties of migraine, which sounds uncannily like a famous advertising slogan of the time. The key thing which would engage the practitioner's interest in your case is the fact that the migraine occurs mid-cycle, where the great majority of cycle-related migraines tend to occur just before or just after the period.
The Chinese understanding of the physiology of the body is entirely different from the western one, based as it is on the flow of 'qi', the Chinese term for energy, and a functional understanding of the internal Organs, not simply physical things which work in their precise location but functional units which can carry on working even when the physical organ has gone, like the Spleen or Gall Bladder. This means that the physiology of the menstrual cycle, when expressed and understood in these terms, identifies various peaks and flows during the cycle which can help to make sense of some of the symptoms which occur. A skilled practitioner may be able to make sense of your specific presentation and adjust the balances of your energy accordingly. Even where the symptom may not relate directly to a specific physiological understanding of the problem it is important to bear in mind that there is a very powerful strand in Chinese medicine which regards symptoms as merely alarm bells which, if the whokle system is in balance, will resolve.
How does it work? Well, from a Chinese medicine perspective it is all about ensuring a good flow and supply of qi to all of the body, and the needles are used to re-balance everything, adjusting excesses and deficiencies, and removing blockage and stagnation. Of course, this presupposes that you buy into the Chinese medicine understanding of the body, which most western medical practitioners don't. Their research often looks to identify changes in body chemistry achieved by needles, or to neuriphysiological effects, and there is no doubt that there will be changes in these - it's all one body after al.
The key thing is to ensure that acupuncture treatment is worth pursuing, and if not, to look at what else may be of benefit. The best advice we can give is that you visit a BAcC member local to you for an informal assessment of whether they think acupuncture may be of benefit.
Q. I have suffered from severe migraine my entire life. I take daily medication which reduces attacks to 1-2 a year. When an attack begins, I haven't found any tablets that help. By chance I received acupuncture by my GP when I happened to see her whilst in the middle of an attack, which instantly ended the attack.
Would it be possible to be trained to give myself acupuncture (on the back of the hand) so I could use this as a first aid treatment if/when I suffer my next migraine?
A. Although it's great to hear of people having dramatic results from having treatment we do not encourage people to needle themselves. There are two main rasons. First, acupuncture involves piercing the skin and safely disposing of needles, and a professional practitioner spends a considerable time learning the skills and knowledge necessary to remove any risk of infection or cross-infection from the process. Our main complaint about very short training courses is that while they may train people in useful adjunctive skills they cannot hope to ensure that the person taking them is sufficiently well trained in safe needle practice and all the cautions that go with being a professional acupuncturist.
Second, although the treatment of symptoms has its place in Chinese medicine, symptoms are regarded as only a part of the picture, and are usually indicators of imbalances within the system which need attention. The risk is that using acupuncture in a first aid way, the underlying pattern is deteriorating, but the alarm bell which the symptom represents keeps getting turned off.
The fact that this works so well for you, however, is perhaps something you could discuss with your GP. Our members would possibly fall foul of our Codes of Professional Conduct if they taught people self-needling techniques, and our insurers would probably be less than happy with the practice. There have been one or two trials within the NHS which used self-needling, however, and it may be that your GP can authorise and delegate care in this way. If not, acupressure using the same points should offer a similar kind of relief.
Yes. Acupuncture is one of a number of options which have a proven success in dealing with tension-type headaches in the short-term. Headaches are one of the most common reasons why people consult an acupuncturist in the UK, and while we're still waiting for research into the treatment of migraine headache relief to be accepted as thoroughly reliable, the evidence for tension headaches is well-documented and accepted. Not only can treatment deal directly with the symptoms you experience, but the general sense of well-being and relaxation associated with the treatment can help to reduce and hopefully provide temporary relief of the symptoms.
Many people experience headaches of this nature because of the working patterns of modern life, with the focus on screen-based work and long hours sitting in the same position. Your practitioner will explore with you what practical steps you can take to help the treatment to have the maximum possible benefit.