Acupuncture for tension-type headache – the 2016 Cochrane Review

For those readers who want to return to the scientific research on the effectiveness of acupuncture, here is a post reporting on the latest journal article on tension headache and the impact of acupuncture.


Please click here for the summary and detail of the paper. It is a summary of all recent research on the topic of headache and acupuncture and published by the Cochrane Library. For those not familiar with this resource the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (CDSR) is the leading resource for systematic reviews in health care and is to be trusted by healthcare professionals. The Cochrane Library (named after Archie Cochrane) is a collection of databases in medicine and other healthcare specialties.  At its core is the collection of Cochrane Reviews, a database of systematic reviews and meta-analyses which summarize and interpret the results of medical research. The Cochrane Library aims to make the results of well-conducted controlled trials readily available and is a key resource in evidence-based medicine.


Very helpfully, the authors – Linde et al – provide a plain English summary which I reproduce here:


Acupuncture and Tension Headache


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 frequent tension-type headache.



Tension-type headache is a common type of headache. Mild episodes may be treated adequately by pain-killers. In some individuals, however, tension-type headache occurs frequently and significantly impairs their quality of life. 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 tension-type headache. We found randomised controlled trials to evaluate whether acupuncture prevents tension-type headache. We looked mainly at the numbers of people who responded to treatment, which means a halving of the number of days on which they experienced a headache.


Key results

We reviewed 12 trials with 2349 adults, published up to January 2016. One new trial is included in this updated review.

Acupuncture added to usual care or treatment of headaches only on onset (usually with pain-killers) in two large trials resulted in 48 in 100 participants having headache frequency at least halved, compared to 17 of 100 participants given usual care only.

Acupuncture was compared with ‘fake’ acupuncture, where needles are inserted at incorrect points or do not penetrate the skin, in six trials. Headache frequency halved in 52 of 100 participants receiving true acupuncture compared with 43 of 100 participants receiving ‘fake’ acupuncture. The results were dominated by one large, good quality trial (with about 400 participants), which showed 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.

Acupuncture was compared with other treatments such as physiotherapy, massage or relaxation in four trials, but these had no useful information.