I get terrible headaches, but I don't like to use painkillers. Can acupuncture help?

I get terrible headaches, but I don’t like to use painkillers. Can acupuncture help?

Tanya Edwards, M.D.

Tanya Edwards, M.D.

A family physician, Dr. Tanya Edwards is passionate about using nutrition for the prevention and treatment of chronic illness.  She... Read more

Absolutely. There have been multiple studies showing acupuncture to be very helpful for the treatment and prevention of tension and migraine headaches. Acupuncture originates from traditional Chinese medicine and is based on the belief that the body has a balance and flow of energy called chi. If your chi is not in balance, you can have problems with a variety of illnesses. Migraine headaches are thought to represent an imbalance of chi.


To correct the imbalances, a practitioner inserts hair-thin needles into various points throughout the body to modulate the flow of chi. If you’re worried about pain from the needles, fear not. Some patients report that the sensation is like a brief, mild pinching pain, while others aren’t bothered at all by the needles. Start with weekly acupuncture treatments for three to six weeks. Depending on how you respond, you can cut back on how often you go.


What’s the Western medicine explanation for why acupuncture works? We have no idea, really. We do know that acupuncture increases the body’s production of endogenous endorphins, which naturally relieve pain, thanks to their morphine-like effect. However, this doesn’t explain why a treatment might last for weeks or months.


In addition to acupuncture, you should also supplement with 400 to 1,000 milligrams of magnesium per day. Eighty-five percent of Americans get less than the daily dietary recommendation for this mineral. Low intake of magnesium can trigger headaches (as well as constipation, charley horses, insomnia, high blood pressure, PMS and anxiety). Magnesium is found in foods such as pumpkin and sunflower seeds, halibut, spinach and almonds — but getting the recommended daily value of 400 milligrams from food sources alone is a challenge even for the healthiest eater. People who are on diuretics (water pills) for high blood pressure are especially at risk for magnesium deficiency.


Most patients respond well to magnesium oxide, which is inexpensive and widely available. If after two to four weeks you’re still getting headaches, switch to magnesium citrate or magnesium glycinate, which you can find at health food stores. These forms might be better absorbed.


Start with 400 milligrams of magnesium per day, then increase amounts by 200 to 250 milligrams every few days, stopping when your stools become loose. If you’re wondering whether a blood test can tell if you’re deficient, it can’t: The body keeps magnesium levels perfectly balanced by leaching it out of muscle and bone.


Since magnesium can make you sleepy, take the supplement at bedtime. If you have kidney problems, such as renal insufficiency or kidney failure, do not supplement with magnesium. Magnesium builds up to toxic levels when it’s not properly cleared by the kidneys. Learn more at 360-5.com: 8 Moves to Help Ease Tension Headaches.