Acupuncture Relieves Migraines
Source: Dallas News
Migraine sufferers Amy O’Brien and Bonnie Sue Garcia both needed relief without medication. Their separate paths led them to the same place: acupuncture.
O’Brien, who is pregnant and can’t take the migraine medicine she’s relied on for years, chose treatment with a licensed acupuncturist. Garcia, who started getting migraines right before she turned 50, found answers with a medical doctor who uses acupuncture in her practice.
“We’re kind of trying to keep a foot in Western medicine but bringing what Eastern medicine can offer on top of that,” says Dr. Claudia Harsh, a specialist in medical acupuncture and integrative medicine with the Integrative Medicine Program at Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center at Dallas. Harsh is Garcia’s physician.
Garcia turned to Harsh after taking migraine medication that only gave her temporary relief and unwanted side effects. She wanted to find the root cause of the debilitating migraines that had suddenly taken over her life.
“I had a pile of medication that I refused to take because it wasn’t making me feel any better,” says Garcia, whose neurologist then suggested Botox. “That just kind of freaked me out. That was my last straw. I’m not doing Botox in my head. I am not comfortable with that.”
Her research for a more holistic approach led her to The Pain Cure: The Proven Medical Program That Helps End Your Chronic Pain by Dharma Singh Khalsa. Next, she found out about the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture and Harsh.
“What I liked about her approach was that she interviewed you to try to understand your lifestyle, how much stress you have in your life and your nutrition,” says Garcia, who lives in Grand Prairie and works in banking in downtown Dallas. “I knew I was connected to the right person.”
O’Brien of Lake Highlands was also looking for alternatives last fall when her obstetrician-gynecologist told her that the excessive caffeine in Excedrin Migraine medicine was out of the question, as were Botox injections. O’Brien, who is due in August, says her migraines intensified in her first trimester.
“I went from having three to four migraine attacks per month to two per week where I was shut down 16 hours, can’t move, hanging out in the bathroom, dark, quiet, no lights, no sound, nothing,” says O’Brien, a physician recruiter for Staff Care in Irving. “I finally went to my doctor and said, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I have to go to work still.’”
O’Brien’s doctor said that his aunt was seeing relief through acupuncture. O’Brien booked an appointment with Ellee Carlson, a licensed acupuncturist at Southwest Acupuncture Clinic in Richardson.
“I wish I had known about this in the first trimester because that would have been fantastic,” says O’Brien, who has suffered from migraines since age 7. “For the longest time I didn’t know there were any options. I never would have thought about acupuncture, just because you don’t hear about it.”
Acupuncture for migraine pain relief is not new but it’s becoming more mainstream since the medical community began embracing it.
“I find that we’re slightly behind the curve here in Dallas. Certainly on the East Coast and West Coast, it’s almost standard that people would go and get acupuncture for pain,” says Harsh, who has a medical degree from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and completed medical acupuncture training at UCLA.
Both Harsh and Dr. Chaouki Khoury, director of the Baylor Headache Center, point to a German study led by Klaus Linde and published in 2005 in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The trial consisted of 12 sessions over eight weeks. Experts compared the effectiveness of acupuncture for migraines against no acupuncture and sham acupuncture.
The study showed an actual improvement for those receiving both acupuncture and sham acupuncture with no improvement for the control group. Khoury also cites another study published in the Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology in February 2015.
“That study compares the effectiveness of acupuncture therapy and conventional drug therapy on the psychological profile of migraine patients,” he says.
Khoury, who refers patients out for acupuncture, says studies prove acupuncture for pain does have benefits, but he and many medical experts work off the theory that its stress-and-relaxation techniques are key.
“Is it truly because we’re hitting the Chinese points of your soul and your love and all the different acupuncture points per se?” he says. “No … it’s a stress-and-relaxation technique, the same way as yoga helps with headache, as Pilates helps with headache, acupuncture helps with headache.”
So while experts helping migraine patients may have different working theories, their goal is the same: alleviating the pain.
Carlson, who treats O’Brien, says treatment strategy depends on pinpointing the migraine’s root cause, which may involve hormones, body tissue or nerves.
“My perspective is probably quite different because I am approaching the patient’s diagnosis from an Eastern medicine paradigm. While I definitely take their biomedical diagnosis into consideration, I do not select a treatment strategy based upon that. I approach the patient from a holistic perspective analyzing how the entire system is functioning and responding to external and internal disruption,” Carlson says.
O’Brien and Garcia say they believe the needles inserted into their shoulder muscle, neck and head are key to their relief.
Carlson inserts needles into her tight neck and shoulder muscles, O’Brien says, as well as the scalp and in her eyebrows since her migraines start behind her eyes.
“As a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner, I assess the overall presentation, looking to discern the pathomechanism
behind the migraine and seek out the root cause. Are the migraines exacerbated by changing weather conditions? Fluctuations in the menstrual cycle? Certain foods? Stress? Muscle tension?” says Carlson, who has a bachelor of science in integrative biology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a master of science (traditional Oriental medicine) from Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in Chicago. “There are many possibilities, and it is my job to explore these options.”
After a few visits with Carlson, O’Brien says there was noticeable improvement.
“It’s amazing. I haven’t had to cancel any plans,” she says. “I don’t know where I’d be without her. I’d be miserable.”
Harsh and Carlson’s approaches are similar. Their initial assessment includes looking over medical history, lifestyle and nutrition. About eight to 16 needles are typically used in both Carlson and Harsh’s migraine treatment.
“It’s two paths up the same mountain,” says Harsh, who also is an OB-GYN with Texas Oncology. “We use the same terminology. Our perspectives are slightly different. I will always start with a medical model because I am a physician. But I try not to focus on the differences and say, ‘Hey, if I put a point in large intestine 4 on the hand, that’s where the licensed acupuncturist puts it, too.’ I might use different modalities and different nutritional supplements than they do — I don’t use herbs, for instance. Everybody finds the path that works for them.”
Patients O’Brien and Garcia have taken Harsh and Carlson’s nutrition, lifestyle and posture recommendations to heart. Both have scaled back on caffeinated drinks, and Garcia avoids nuts and yogurt, which seem to trigger her migraines.
After just a few 30-minute sessions of relieving tension in her shoulders and neck, “Those were the days I could sleep like a baby,” Garcia says. “If it wasn’t for me really pushing these doctors and doing my own research, I think I would have continued to struggle with them [migraines], and I refuse to live my life that way.”
Both O’Brien and Garcia say they are rethinking the stress in their everyday lives.
“We’re in a culture where we burn the candle at both ends and we get lauded for overdoing it and overbooking ourselves. It’s just not good,” says Harsh. “It will come out somewhere in our health, and migraines I think are kind of like a pressure-release valve.”
O’Brien expects to keep doing acupuncture even after her baby arrives. No need to take medicine. And that shift in her thinking is a healthy one, Harsh says.
“We have to change our mentality: ‘I hurt, let me take this pill,’ to ‘I hurt. Let me think about how I’m sleeping at night and what I’m eating and how I’m being nourished by the people in my life.’ It becomes a broader awareness of what’s going on in our lives, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing,” Harsh says.