Samantha Fletcher had her first migraine at 13
Lying on a table in the dark with half a dozen needles sticking out of my body, I wasn’t feeling optimistic.
I was scared to move in case I dislodged something, and if I opened my eyes I could see a long pin sticking out directly between my brows.
What good could this — my first experience of acupuncture — do, except perhaps cure my fear of needles by making me face it head-on? But I was here because I’d been told acupuncture could help treat my migraines.
I’d had my first migraine when I was 13 and it was terrifying. I thought I was going blind. Like about a third of the six million sufferers in the UK, I get an ‘aura’ first, where I see flashing lights and blind spots before the full-blown attack.
The migraines were mild and rare at first, but they became frequent and unmanageable. Two years ago, at the age of 26, I was having two a week.
According to traditional acupuncturists, illnesses are a disturbance of your energy — or ‘qi’ — which flows along channels in the body (file image)
As well as a pounding headache above my right eye, I’d have nausea, vomiting, vision problems and low mood, and would feel wiped out for several days afterwards — what I’d call my migraine ‘hangover’.
So I was willing to consider anything to stop them.
I’d tried everything, from restricted diets to beta-blockers, to no avail. By the time I read about acupuncture in 2018, I was desperate.
Samantha had tried everything from restricted diets to beta-blockers, to no avail
Migraines are thought to be caused by temporary changes to the nerves, chemicals and blood vessels in your brain. Some sufferers have particular triggers, such as stress, caffeine and certain foods.
So for several months I varied my diet, monitored my lifestyle and kept a diary of the attacks. Sadly, everything seemed to be a trigger: being tired, sleeping too much, skipping meals, overeating, being stressed, relaxing. This approach clearly wasn’t working.
Over the years I was prescribed increasingly strong anti-sickness drugs and painkillers, including codeine. I also tried three types of triptan — drugs developed to treat migraines by blocking the transmission of nerve pain.
All these can help, but it seems I was unlucky. Some made my attacks less severe but none made them less frequent — and some came with side-effects such as heart palpitations and dizziness.
I also had a string of tests to make sure nothing more sinister was going on, including eye tests and even a heart check.
Eventually, and with no further explanation for why they were occurring, my migraines became chronic — defined as more than 15 headache days a month — and a neurologist decided I needed a drug to prevent them, rather than just treat the attacks.
I was prescribed a beta-blocker. But beta-blockers also lower blood pressure — and I already had low blood pressure, so they made me feel faint and I could only take a short course. After I stopping taking them the migraines returned, even worse than before.
By April 2018 I had reached the end of the line with conventional treatments. So I turned to the Migraine Trust, whose website has a list of alternative remedies, including acupuncture, which piqued my interest.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) lists it as a treatment for migraine, I found out, and some GPs prescribe it. My doctor was less convinced but said I had nothing to lose, so in spring 2018 I booked my first session.
I found a practitioner near me via the British Acupuncture Council, and off I went.
According to traditional acupuncturists, illnesses are a disturbance of your energy — or ‘qi’ — which flows along channels in the body. They believe inserting needles along those channels can rebalance that flow and treat various ailments, including migraine.
After a brief discussion, my acupuncturist said she believed that stiffness in my neck was causing tension in my head and putting pressure on nerves leading to my brain.
She asked me to lie down on the table and tapped the first needle gently into my hand. It didn’t hurt but was slightly strange — you feel a tension where the needle goes in, like a string being tightened, which gradually releases. She put a few more needles in my hands and feet, and one between my eyebrows — and after ten minutes I couldn’t feel anything at all.
I lay there for half an hour, then she returned to the room, took them out and sent me on my way. To my surprise, the next week was the first in years when I didn’t have a migraine. Had I found something that worked, or was it a fluke?
To find out, I had to go back. In fact, I went back once a week for several months. I had pins inserted all over me: along my hairline, in the crown of my head, in my face, hands and feet, up and down my arms and legs, on my back and neck.
I would leave feeling calm and less tense — and I had only two migraines in nine months while having acupuncture.
After 17 sessions, my acupuncturist discharged me.
Now, at the acupuncturist’s suggestion, I visit a chiropractor every eight weeks to ‘crack’ my neck and stop tension building up, but that’s it.
It has been nearly a year since I finished acupuncture and the benefits seem to have lasted: I’ve had only a handful of attacks and they are much less severe. Painkillers stop them, and each attack lasts about six hours, instead of 24 hours.
A 2016 review by the authoritative Cochrane group looked at 22 trials of acupuncture compared with other treatments, and found that it reduces the frequency of migraines and is at least as effective as some drugs for preventing attacks, with far fewer side-effects.
But in trials when acupuncture was tested rigorously and compared with a placebo, the findings were less clear. The Cochrane review found it does have an effect compared with sham treatment, but this is ‘small’. Other scientists argue that acupuncture itself is just a placebo effect.
‘There is a lack of strong evidence to support the use of acupuncture for migraine,’ says Dr Ben Turner, a consultant neurologist at the Royal London Hospital. ‘But it is worth considering, as it is safe.’
He says acupuncture may work by stimulating some nerves, which in turn seems to switch off other nerves — such as the ones that carry pain signals or trigger migraines.
The difficulty of explaining exactly how it works may be why many remain sceptical.
As a 2018 study in the Journal of Pain Research explained it: ‘Acupuncture has been proven to be effective as an alternative therapy [for migraine] . . . but its widespread application has not been fully realised, due to lack of understanding of the underlying mechanism on the nervous system.’
But I’m surprised no GP ever suggested it to me. Without the migraines I have more energy, I feel happier, I can exercise again and it’s much easier to work. Sceptics may say it’s just the placebo effect — but I don’t mind if it is.
This week: Psoriasis and type 2 diabetes
In 2017, researchers found a link between the skin condition psoriasis and increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
Those whose psoriasis covered more than 10 per cent of their body were 64 per cent more likely to develop type 2 diabetes.
‘The type of inflammation seen in psoriasis is known to promote insulin resistance.
Also, psoriasis and diabetes share similar genetic mutations, suggesting a biological basis between the conditions,’ says Joel Gelfand, a professor of dermatology.