Tension headaches, also known as stress headaches, occur in up to 80% of the population at some point. Causes can vary from stress, poor rest, bad posture, anxiety, and even low iron levels. Unlike migraine headaches there are no neurological symptoms such as muscle weakness or vision issues. They generally do not cause nausea and vomiting. Occasional tension headaches affect the vast majority of people and are usually treated with rest or over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, aspirin, and others. Acupuncture can help reduce stress and minimize the occurrence of occasional tension headaches.
Chronic tension headaches are a different matter. First, not all chronic headaches are tension headaches and more serious conditions such as fractures, hypertension (high blood pressure), bleeding in the brain, and other conditions should be ruled out. Any severe headache that comes on suddenly, should be assessed immediately by a medical professional.
So the big question here is: does acupuncture help chronic tension headaches? Lots of studies have looked at this. Most are not well constructed. A recent meta-study (a study that analyzes the results from other studies) shows the evidence supports the effectiveness of acupuncture treating tension headaches. However, the studies were of low to moderate quality and more studies are necessary. For those that don’t read research frequently, this last part is very common; there are few studies that do not end with the phrase “more studies are necessary.”
Current research provides evidence that acupuncture can help tension headaches. That evidence is not extensive, but it is moderately strong.