Clinician Article

Acupuncture for the prevention of episodic migraine.

  • Linde K
  • Allais G
  • Brinkhaus B
  • Fei Y
  • Mehring M
  • Vertosick EA, et al.
Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016 Jun 28;2016(6):CD001218. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD001218.pub3. (Review)
PMID: 27351677
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  • Family Medicine (FM)/General Practice (GP)
    Relevance - 6/7
    Newsworthiness - 6/7
  • General Internal Medicine-Primary Care(US)
    Relevance - 6/7
    Newsworthiness - 6/7
  • Neurology
    Relevance - 6/7
    Newsworthiness - 5/7
  • Special Interest - Pain -- Physician
    Relevance - 5/7
    Newsworthiness - 5/7


BACKGROUND: Acupuncture is often used for migraine prevention but its effectiveness is still controversial. We present an update of our Cochrane review from 2009.

OBJECTIVES: To investigate whether acupuncture is a) more effective than no prophylactic treatment/routine care only; b) more effective than sham (placebo) acupuncture; and c) as effective as prophylactic treatment with drugs in reducing headache frequency in adults with episodic migraine.

SEARCH METHODS: We searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL: 2016, issue 1); MEDLINE (via Ovid, 2008 to January 2016); Ovid EMBASE (2008 to January 2016); and Ovid AMED (1985 to January 2016). We checked PubMed for recent publications to April 2016. We searched the World Health Organization (WHO) Clinical Trials Registry Platform to February 2016 for ongoing and unpublished trials.

SELECTION CRITERIA: We included randomized trials at least eight weeks in duration that compared an acupuncture intervention with a no-acupuncture control (no prophylactic treatment or routine care only), a sham-acupuncture intervention, or prophylactic drug in participants with episodic migraine.

DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: Two reviewers checked eligibility; extracted information on participants, interventions, methods and results, and assessed risk of bias and quality of the acupuncture intervention. The primary outcome was migraine frequency (preferably migraine days, attacks or headache days if migraine days not measured/reported) after treatment and at follow-up. The secondary outcome was response (at least 50% frequency reduction). Safety outcomes were number of participants dropping out due to adverse effects and number of participants reporting at least one adverse effect. We calculated pooled effect size estimates using a fixed-effect model. We assessed the evidence using GRADE and created 'Summary of findings' tables.

MAIN RESULTS: Twenty-two trials including 4985 participants in total (median 71, range 30 to 1715) met our updated selection criteria. We excluded five previously included trials from this update because they included people who had had migraine for less than 12 months, and included five new trials. Five trials had a no-acupuncture control group (either treatment of attacks only or non-regulated routine care), 15 a sham-acupuncture control group, and five a comparator group receiving prophylactic drug treatment. In comparisons with no-acupuncture control groups and groups receiving prophylactic drug treatment, there was risk of performance and detection bias as blinding was not possible. Overall the quality of the evidence was moderate. Comparison with no acupunctureAcupuncture was associated with a moderate reduction of headache frequency over no acupuncture after treatment (four trials, 2199 participants; standardised mean difference (SMD) -0.56; 95% CI -0.65 to -0.48); findings were statistically heterogeneous (I² = 57%; moderate quality evidence). After treatment headache frequency at least halved in 41% of participants receiving acupuncture and 17% receiving no acupuncture (pooled risk ratio (RR) 2.40; 95% CI 2.08 to 2.76; 4 studies, 2519 participants) with a corresponding number needed to treat for an additional beneficial outcome (NNTB) of 4 (95% CI 3 to 6); there was no indication of statistical heterogeneity (I² = 7%; moderate quality evidence). The only trial with post-treatment follow-up found a small but significant benefit 12 months after randomisation (RR 2.16; 95% CI 1.35 to 3.45; NNT 7; 95% 4 to 25; 377 participants, low quality evidence). Comparison with sham acupunctureBoth after treatment (12 trials, 1646 participants) and at follow-up (10 trials, 1534 participants), acupuncture was associated with a small but statistically significant frequency reduction over sham (moderate quality evidence). The SMD was -0.18 (95% CI -0.28 to -0.08; I² = 47%) after treatment and -0.19 (95% CI -0.30 to -0.09; I² = 59%) at follow-up. After treatment headache frequency at least halved in 50% of participants receiving true acupuncture and 41% receiving sham acupuncture (pooled RR 1.23, 95% CI 1.11 to 1.36; I² = 48%; 14 trials, 1825 participants) and at follow-up in 53% and 42%, respectively (pooled RR 1.25, 95% CI 1.13 to 1.39; I² = 61%; 11 trials, 1683 participants; moderate quality evidence). The corresponding NNTBs are 11 (95% CI 7.00 to 20.00) and 10 (95% CI 6.00 to 18.00), respectively. The number of participants dropping out due to adverse effects (odds ratio (OR) 2.84; 95% CI 0.43 to 18.71; 7 trials, 931 participants; low quality evidence) and the number of participants reporting adverse effects (OR 1.15; 95% CI 0.85 to 1.56; 4 trials, 1414 participants; moderate quality evidence) did not differ significantly between acupuncture and sham groups. Comparison with prophylactic drug treatmentAcupuncture reduced migraine frequency significantly more than drug prophylaxis after treatment ( SMD -0.25; 95% CI -0.39 to -0.10; 3 trials, 739 participants), but the significance was not maintained at follow-up (SMD -0.13; 95% CI -0.28 to 0.01; 3 trials, 744 participants; moderate quality evidence). After three months headache frequency at least halved in 57% of participants receiving acupuncture and 46% receiving prophylactic drugs (pooled RR 1.24; 95% CI 1.08 to 1.44) and after six months in 59% and 54%, respectively (pooled RR 1.11; 95% CI 0.97 to 1.26; moderate quality evidence). Findings were consistent among trials with I² being 0% in all analyses. Trial participants receiving acupuncture were less likely to drop out due to adverse effects (OR 0.27; 95% CI 0.08 to 0.86; 4 trials, 451 participants) and to report adverse effects (OR 0.25; 95% CI 0.10 to 0.62; 5 trials 931 participants) than participants receiving prophylactic drugs (moderate quality evidence).

AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: The available evidence suggests that adding acupuncture to symptomatic treatment of attacks reduces the frequency of headaches. Contrary to the previous findings, the updated evidence also suggests that there is an effect over sham, but this effect is small. The available trials also suggest that acupuncture may be at least similarly effective as treatment with prophylactic drugs. Acupuncture can be considered a treatment option for patients willing to undergo this treatment. As for other migraine treatments, long-term studies, more than one year in duration, are lacking.

Clinical Comments

Family Medicine (FM)/General Practice (GP)

Useful meta-analysis that decreases my skepticism about acupuncture use for migraine prevention. I would consider recommending it for some patients who decline or fail to try lifestyle and pharmacologic measures.

General Internal Medicine-Primary Care(US)

More and more patients are seeking alternative treatment for their "ailments". This seems safe and perhaps effective to some degree, and it behooves us to have the info the patient may need who will be paying out of pocket for this treatment.

General Internal Medicine-Primary Care(US)

This review indicates that acupuncture is a safe alternative to medication prophylaxis for migraine. This is good news for the currently small population that 1) has access to acupuncture and 2) prefers acupuncture to medications.

General Internal Medicine-Primary Care(US)

The study suggests that acupuncture may be a useful tool in managing migraines- even as beneficial as prophylactic medications. The problem remains a lack of understanding of the quality of acupuncture being performed.

General Internal Medicine-Primary Care(US)

Cochrane summarizes the literature on acupuncture for patients interested in preventing migraines that compares the intervention against no intervention, sham acupuncture, and prophylactic medication. The article quantifies acupuncture`s expected benefits in patient-friendly terms to determine whether this therapy is worth considering. This article will help me have a more educated conversation around acupuncture with patients suffering from migraines.

General Internal Medicine-Primary Care(US)

As a general internist, the article is useful and demonstrated that acupuncture is moderately useful, and has a good explanation of the data.


The overall evidence is not that compelling and I'm not sure changes practice.

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