Existing systematic reviews and meta-analyses indicate that acupuncture has similar clinical effectiveness in the prevention of headache disorders (HDs) as drug therapy, but with fewer side effects. As such, examining acupuncture’s use in a pragmatic, real-world setting would be valuable. The purpose of this study was to compare the effects of acupuncture and prophylactic drug treatment (PDT) on headache frequency in patients with HDs, under real-world clinical conditions.
Retrospective cohort study of patients with HDs referred to a pain clinic, using electronic health record data. Patients continued with tertiary care (treatment of acute headache attacks and lifestyle, meditation, exercise and dietary instructions) with PDT, or received 12 sessions of acupuncture over 3 months, instead of PDT under conditions of tertiary care. The primary outcome data were the number of days with headache per month, and groups were compared at baseline and at the end of the third month of treatment.
Data were analysed for 482 patients with HDs. The number of headache days per month decreased by 3.7 (standard deviation (SD) = 2.9) days in the acupuncture group versus 2.9 (SD = 2.3) in the PDT group (p = 0.007). The proportion of responders was 39.5% versus 16.3% (p < 0.001). The number needed to treat was 4 (95% confidence interval = 3-7).
Our study has shown that patients with HDs in tertiary care who opted for treatment with acupuncture appeared to receive similar clinical benefits to those that chose PDT, suggesting these treatments may be similarly effective of the prevention of headache in a real-world clinical setting.