I've seen numerous doctors and neurologists for my headaches in my life. I've been prescribed different types of medications to try to treat those headaches and migraines. And while some of these have worked for a short period of time, every "cure" has felt only temporary, and often came with negative side effects. (For example: One pill I took made my legs literally feel like they were made of lead.)
After a recent (and especially brutal) two-week stretch of near constant headaches and migraines, I knew I had to try something different. At the recommendation of friends and colleagues, I started looking into acupuncture which, in some studies, has been shown to significantly reduce the frequency and severity of migraines in patients. I was connected with Irina Logman, a certified acupuncturist and founder of Advanced Holistic Center in New York City, a Traditional Chinese Medicine practice that offers acupuncture, cupping, and meditation among its services.
Logman offers facial acupuncture, which is a treatment that the center advertises as a means to improve your skin's elasticity, but she also pairs facial needling with acupuncture treatment on other parts of the body to address other underlying health issues — including potentially treating headaches. Even though I don't have any major concerns with my skin, I wanted to give facial acupuncture a try to see if I could find a more lasting cure for my migraines.
Practitioners claim facial acupuncture can help lift skin, smooth out impurities, and brighten complexion. As for scientific evidence, the research landscape on facial acupuncture, specifically, is not large — though there have been some small studies examining its effects on melasma and facial elasticity, for instance. Existing studies on acupuncture for migraines and headaches have assessed treatments that target a combination of facial, head, and body acupuncture points, just like Logman would do for my treatments.
According to practitioners, acupuncture needles create microtraumas in your face so that your body will send energy to the spots where the needles are inserted. Logman says these needle points in the face promote improved blood flow, which means your face should then produce more collagen and release more endorphins.
All facial acupuncture treatments at Logman's practice end in facial massage and Gua Sha — an ancient Chinese healing practice in which the skin is scraped with a smooth jade stone — which Logman says brings even more energy to the face. The stones and the massaging treatment are similar to the at-home jade rollers you've seen everywhere this past year. Even more important for my purposes: This type of facial massage has also been reported to soothe headaches.
To specifically treat migraines, Logman says an acupuncturist will usually insert needles into other parts of the body, especially the legs and your stomach. The Mayo Clinic explains the theory behind hitting these specific spots: By needling these key points on the body, an acupuncturist is attempting to move and rebalance the energy of your body (according to Traditional Chinese medicine) or to stimulate different nerves, muscles, and tissue to release pain (the Western medicine belief). In my sessions, I experienced several treatments where most needle points were concentrated on my feet and legs. Logman explained to me that this was meant to move the energy away from my headache and down to the lower parts of my body.
Logman recommends frequent acupuncture treatments, comparing them to exercise. "If you do it once in a while, it does not take hold in changing your body," says Logman. She recommended that I go to treatments a few times a week.
The thought of having dozens of needles inserted into your body might seem scary if you've never done it before, but most studies indicate that the risks associated with acupuncture are actually pretty low, as long as you see a reputable and certified acupuncturist. In the acupuncture for facial elasticity study I referenced earlier, researchers found that mild bruising at needle insertion points was the biggest risk of facial acupuncture.
I also spoke with Dr. Rashmi Halker Singh, Assistant Professor of Neurology and the Headache Fellowship Program Director at the Mayo Clinic, about migraine treatments and acupuncture. Halker Singh does believe that acupuncture can make a difference for headache patients, but there's "no hard and fast rule" that acupuncture, or any treatment, will work for everyone. She has prescribed acupuncture in conjunction with medication, and sometimes recommends acupuncture as the only treatment for migraines in patients. “Other patients don’t want to be on any medication at all. They want to try something more natural first, and we’ll send them for acupuncture," she says.
According to Halker Singh, acupuncture is harder to study than medication, but she also says that there have been studies that seem to show acupuncture can decrease migraine frequency.
For this 30 Day Trial, I received acupuncture treatments at least once a week for four weeks at Advanced Holistic Center. Throughout my treatments, I saw numerous acupuncturists within the group and tested out a variety of treatments. Most days I did facial acupuncture, but if I was having a particularly bad headache or migraine day, I opted solely for a headache treatment, which did not include needles in my face at all. I tracked changes in my skin and frequency and intensity of my headaches. I didn't change anything else about my diet or lifestyle during these 30 days.
For my very first acupuncture treatment, I got 20 needles in my face and another 12 on other parts of my body. I went in feeling calm and collected, but when I was actually lying on the table, pre-treatment, I definitely found myself growing more nervous.
I definitely felt a slight prick when the needles were inserted (regardless of where they were on the body). But I only felt real pain with three of the 32 needles that were inserted, and any pain associated with the needles dissipated within minutes. Once the needles were inserted, the acupuncturist gave me about 45 minutes of downtime. Since you literally can't move any part of your body, including your face, this was probably the most zen 45 minutes of my life.
As you can see from the "after" photo, my face looked a bit more flush from just the first treatment. I liked the added color to my face because it felt and looked similar to how my skin feels after a few good hours out in the sun.
For my second treatment, which was five days after my first treatment, I saw two acupuncturists — one who specializes in headaches and one who specializes in facial acupuncture — so it was kind of like getting two treatments in one. The acupuncturists amped up the amount of needles in the other parts of my body besides my face to focus on my headaches. I got needled in my hands, toes, legs, and even my stomach! At the end of my treatment, I literally told the acupuncturists, "I'm so relaxed, I can't feel my arms."
For my third session two days later, I opted for my first migraine-specific treatment, which meant lots of needles in my lower body and none in my face. By this point, I was generally leaving the center with much less, or no, headache pain, regardless of how bad my headaches were when I walked in. However, I was still getting frequent headaches in between treatments.
After my fourth session, which was six days after the last treatment, the thing I was dreading finally happened: I noticed some visible bruising on my face from the facial acupuncture session (see my temple in the bottom right photo). This is totally normal since the needles puncture your skin, and Logman had warned me it might happen. Anytime I did develop a bruise from the acupuncture, I also noticed soreness associated with that spot for the next two to three days.
I opted for a migraine-only session on my fifth appointment since my face was still a bit sore and bruised from my treatment the day before. If the bruising was a low in my acupuncture experience, the unprompted compliments on my skin I suddenly started getting after this (which was week three in my treatments) definitely were a highlight. "Your face is glowing," said one coworker. “Your cheeks look glowy," said another. OK, I thought, I guess this is working!
I went into my sixth session, which was six days after session five, with a wicked headache, so I completely forgot to take any photos. I was treated by Logman in this session and we discussed the different styles of acupuncture that I'd been experiencing with other acupuncturists within the group. Logman's treatments tend to lean on the intense side — more needles in more places, which supposedly means even more energy being moved around. Personally, I preferred her method. I was finding that more needles equaled fewer headaches for me, so I encouraged her to bring it on.
For one of my final treatments during the 30 days — pictured here 21 days after my first treatment — I went back for more facial acupuncture. I felt like the promised result of glowing skin was especially apparent after getting treatments for three weeks, which you can see in the "after" photo above. Photos from my final treatment, during week four of the experiment, are below.
There was one moment near the end of my 30 days where I actually couldn't remember the last time I had a headache. I will think back on that moment fondly, forever. I went about 10 days after my final acupuncture session without experiencing a bad headache or a migraine, which is the longest stretch I can remember in a long time. (At the time of writing this, it's been about five weeks since my last treatment and I'm back to getting headaches about one to two times a week.)
Even when I did get headaches during this experiment, I would feel a headache coming on, as I normally do, but instead of it intensifying into a debilitating headache or migraine, it would usually remain a more dull pain that didn't advance further. Not perfect, but definitely a relief compared to my usual experiences.
I do think that acupuncture helped reduce the frequency and intensity of my headaches during my trial, especially because now that I am no longer regularly getting treatments, my headaches are returning more frequently. The only negative part of the experience (facial bruising) wasn't nearly painful enough to stop me from going back for more in the future.
I might not ever find a magic cure for my headaches, but, hey, at least my skin is glowing and looks great. Besides, the other common recommendation for managing my migraines that I've been getting from doctors (including Halker Singh) is to stop drinking coffee. Honestly, that sounds even more painful than the needles.