Dry Needling for the Treatment of Tension-Type, Cervicogenic, or Migraine Headaches: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis

Phys Ther. 2021 May 4;101(5):pzab068. doi: 10.1093/ptj/pzab068.


Objective: Dry needling is a treatment technique used by clinicians to relieve symptoms in patients with tension-type headache (TTH), cervicogenic headache (CGH), or migraine. This systematic review's main objective was to assess the effectiveness of dry needling on headache pain intensity and related disability in patients with TTH, CGH, or migraine.

Methods: Medline/PubMed, Scopus, Embase, PEDro, Web of Science, Ovid, Allied and Complementary Medicine Database/EBSCO, Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Clinical Trials, Google Scholar, and trial registries were searched until April 1, 2020, along with reference lists of eligible studies and related reviews. Randomized clinical trials or observational studies that compared the effectiveness of dry needling with any other interventions were eligible for inclusion. Three reviewers independently selected studies, extracted data, and assessed risk of bias. Random-effects meta-analyses were performed to produce pooled-effect estimates (Morris dppc2) and their respective CIs.

Results: Of 2715 identified studies, 11 randomized clinical trials were eligible for qualitative synthesis and 9 for meta-analysis. Only 4 trials were of high quality. Very low-quality evidence suggested that dry needling is not statistically better than other interventions for improving headache pain intensity in the short term in patients with TTH (SMD -1.27, 95% CI = -3.56 to 1.03, n = 230), CGH (SMD -0.41, 95% CI = -4.69 to 3.87, n = 104), or mixed headache (TTH and migraine; SMD 0.03; 95% CI = -0.42 to 0.48, n = 90). Dry needling provided significantly greater improvement in related disability in the short term in patients with TTH (SMD -2.28, 95% CI = -2.66 to -1.91, n = 160) and CGH (SMD -0.72, 95% CI = -1.09 to -0.34, n = 144). The synthesis of results showed that dry needling could significantly improve headache frequency, health-related quality of life, trigger point tenderness, and cervical range of motion in TTH and CGH.

Conclusions: Dry needling produces similar effects to other interventions for short-term headache pain relief, whereas dry needling seems to be better than other therapies for improvement in related disability in the short term.

Impact: Although further high-methodological quality studies are warranted to provide a more robust conclusion, our systematic review suggested that for every 1 or 2 patients with TTH treated by dry needling, 1 patient will likely show decreased headache intensity (number needed to treat [NNT] = 2; large effect) and improved related disability (NNT = 1; very large effect). In CGH, for every 3 or 4 patients treated by dry needling, 1 patient will likely exhibit decreased headache intensity (NNT = 4; small effect) and improved related disability (NNT = 3; medium effect).

Keywords: Cervicogenic Headache; Dry Needling; Meta-Analysis; Migraine; Systematic Review; Tension-Type Headache.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Dry Needling / methods*
  • Humans
  • Migraine Disorders / therapy*
  • Pain Measurement
  • Post-Traumatic Headache / therapy*
  • Tension-Type Headache / therapy*