Autonomic Nervous System activity during acupuncture treatment:

A pilot study of patients with migraine

K.Sparrow, M.D.  Private Practice, Sonoma CA

The autonomic nervous system has been implicated as one of the mechanisms by which acupuncture achieves its results.i,

[i] ii, iii, iv, v, vi Heart rate Variability (HRV) is a simple non-invasive method to evaluate the contribution of sympathetic and parasympathetic input to the SA node. HRV can give insight into the autonomic activity in a given clinical situation. There is also considerable evidence that migraine patients have a relative vasomotor instability,vii with enhanced variations in their heart-rate variability measurements, which can be affected by independent interventions.viii,ix  Since migraine is a condition which is possibly helped by acupuncturex, it is conceivable that an alteration in the patient’s sympathetic response is implicated in acupuncture’s effectiveness.

In this study, physiological data (heart rate, and the standard deviation thereof, skin resistance, peripheral temperature, very low frequency, low frequency and high frequency heart rate variability spectra) was collected on eight migraine patients during routine acupuncture treatment for migraine.  The patients were given diagnoses according to TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) and were treated with body acupuncture.  The data were analyzed retrospectively to determine if any patterns developed.

From my data there seemed to be a typical pattern that emerged in patients who were helped by acupuncture.  Patients who were not helped by the acupuncture treatment did not have the same “profile.”  From this initial study, HRV may be a very promising tool in elucidating the mechanisms of acupuncture’s effectiveness in certain clinical situations.  Furthermore, it may even help to determine which migraine patients may benefit from acupuncture treatment.  A more extensive, controlled study would be useful to confirm the findings in this initial study.


i M. Ernst, M.Lee Experimental Neurology 94, 1-10 1986

ii. S. Anderson, T.Lundeberg, Medical Hypothesis 45 (1995):3 p. 273-81

iii. S.Knardahl  Pain 75 (1998) 19-25

iv. D. Thomas, S. Collins Clinical rheumatology, 1992, 11 N01, 55-59

v. E.Stener-Victorin et al Human Reproduction vol.11 no.6 pp 1314-1317, 1996

vi. M. Hammar et al Journal of Urology,  Vol161, 853-856 March 1999



,vii M.Malik, Heart Rate Variability, Futura Publishing Co. 1995

viii AppelS. et al., Headache 1992;32:10-17


,ix  Ziegelman, M Headache 1992;32:169-174


x  NIH Consensus Conference JAMA 1998 Nov.4;280(17): 1518-24