Acupuncture can help people who suffer from headaches and migraines, even when the needles are put in the "wrong" place, according to a major review of medical studies.
Volunteers who were treated with the traditional Chinese technique, in which thin needles are pushed into the skin at specific points, had fewer headaches and migraines, and experienced less pain if a headache came on, researchers found.
Scientists working for the Cochrane Collaboration, which publishes gold standard reviews on the effectiveness of medical treatments, confirmed the beneficial effect of acupuncture after analysing 33 separate studies involving nearly 7,000 patients in total.
Researchers led by Klaus Linde at the centre for complementary medicine research at the Technical University of Munich, Germany, reviewed published evidence for acupuncture as a treatment for tension headaches, which usually affect both sides of the head, and migraines, which tend to affect only one side.
Eleven trials involving 2,317 patients found many experienced fewer headaches after having acupuncture, though a similar improvement was seen in those who had "fake" acupuncture, where the needles were either inserted at incorrect points or did not puncture the skin.
A further 22 trials involving 4,419 patients who suffered migraines were assessed. Again, those who had acupuncture, even when it was faked by placing the needles incorrectly, reported having fewer migraines afterwards.
"The studies suggest that migraine patients beneÞt from acupuncture, although the correct placement of needles seems to be less relevant than is usually thought by acupuncturists," the researchers report.
"Much of the clinical benefit of acupuncture might be due to non-specific needling effects and powerful placebo effects, meaning selection of specific needle points may be less important than many practitioners have traditionally argued," said Linde.
Overall, after an eight-week course of treatment, patients who had acupuncture and no painkillers suffered fewer headaches compared with those who were given only painkillers.
Linde said the results suggest acupuncture could be given to patients who do not wish to take drugs, but he added that more research was needed. "Doctors need to know how long improvements associated with acupuncture will last and whether better trained acupuncturists really achieve better results than those with basic training only," he said.