If migraines are making your life a misery, you would probably try almost anything to relieve your symptoms.
But have you ever thought that an ear piercing could help reduce your pain?
A daith piercing is a piece of jewelry placed through a small fold of cartilage just above the entrance to your ear canal — this fold of cartilage is called the daith. If you lift your finger to this part of your ear now, you’ll appreciate that it’s a tricky area to pierce. It’s also fiddly to take care of afterwards, so people who have it done don’t tend to change their jewelry often.
So why get the piercing in the first place?
Many people simply like the way it looks. But recently, daith piercing has also been suggested as an alternative treatment for chronic headaches.
Just how much truth is there in that statement though? Is it really possible that something as simple as a body piercing could be the answer to long-term migraine relief?
Let’s take a closer look…
Is daith piercing safe?
Although they are common practice and generally always completed in safe and sterile environments, all piercings carry some risk. And piercings through cartilage — like the daith — are riskier than piercings through soft tissues like the ear lobe.
First of all, having a daith piercing done can be pretty painful. There can be bleeding when the piercing is carried out, and there is a risk of swelling afterwards. This means daith piercings can take months to heal, and may result in some permanent scarring.
What’s more, infection might set in at the site of the piercing. Some people can develop an abscess or may need to have a piece of infected cartilage removed from their ear. Infections which spread from the ear into other parts of the body can have even more serious consequences.
If you get your piercing done by a licensed technician — which you absolutely should — they will take steps to reduce any pain involved. They will also use a sterile technique which lessens the chances of infection.
Worryingly though, there have been occasional reports of migraine patients experiencing worsening migraine symptoms after a daith piercing. This is obviously not what we want, so now we’ll look into the effects of daith piercing on migraines.
How does daith piercing affect migraine symptoms?
No one knows exactly how daith piercings affect migraines, but it’s thought to be linked to acupuncture.
Acupuncture was developed in China over 2000 years ago and uses fine needles placed at specific points along ‘meridians’ (channels of energy, or qi, thought to exist on the surface of the body). Acupuncture supposedly treats illness and relieves pain by correcting these flows of energy.
The daith piercing site is at an acupuncture point, so the piercing is thought to work like acupuncture. But instead of using a fine needle, you have a permanent piercing through the skin and cartilage. It’s worth noting though that acupuncture points in the ear have very precise locations, so a piercing would need to be positioned by a trained acupuncturist to have an acupuncture-like effect. Not just any ear piercing will do the trick!
Researchers have also suggested that daith piercing might work by stimulating the vagus nerve — a branch of sensors on the surface of the ear, at the daith. The vagus nerve is important for migraine relief in two ways. One: stimulating the vagus nerve may affect the way in which pain signals are processed and transmitted. And two: the vagus also modifies the ‘excitability’ of the cerebral cortex (the outer covering of the largest part of the brain). This is important because migraine is thought to be caused by disturbances in activity in the brain’s cortex.
So, together, this forms the theory around how daith piercing might work to relieve migraines. But evidence on whether it’s actually effective or not is still unconvincing…
What evidence is there that daith piercings work for migraine?
Put simply: no placebo-controlled trials have been carried out to confirm that daith piercing relieves migraine symptoms.
Why does that matter? Because placebo-controlled trials are designed to help us tell the difference between a treatment effect — a direct physiological effect on a medical condition — and a placebo effect. A placebo effect occurs when people feel better because of the psychological effect that doing something positive can have on their symptoms.
Without a placebo-controlled trial, there’s no way of knowing whether a medication or treatment genuinely works, or whether it works because people believe it will work.
Although some people do report that daith piercing has helped them with their migraines, this sort of evidence is called ‘anecdotal’ — i.e. has no scientific backing behind it. Anecdotal evidence of daith piercings relieving migraine symptoms has been reported by individuals online and by researchers, in case studies. A survey of migraine sufferers who’ve had daith piercings has also been carried out by London Migraine Clinic.
The majority of people who responded to that survey said their symptoms had improved following the piercing, happening less frequently and becoming less severe. But some people didn’t notice any change after the piercing, while others reported that the effect of the piercing wore off over time.
After all, it’s possible that the effects wear off as the piercing heals.
Should you have a daith piercing?
The bottom line is that we don’t know for certain whether daith piercing really helps with migraine. Of course, no migraine treatment is 100% effective, but there are other treatments which have more robust scientific evidence supporting their use. These include other non-drug treatments like relaxation techniques, acupuncture or physiotherapy.
If you like the look of the piercing anyway, and think that any effect on your migraine symptoms could just be an extra benefit, then it could be worth trying. Just make sure to go to a licensed technician, to minimize the risk of complications.
But if you aren’t keen on the idea of caring for a piercing in such a fiddly area, you are likely to be better off looking into other options. Since the benefits of daith piercing are unclear, it’s hard to say whether its risks are worth taking.