Daith piercings aren’t just one of the biggest piercing trends of the year: According to a report in the Daily Mail, they may also help curb severe migraines. Yoga instructor Mara Kroyer, of Perth, Australia, told the publication that her once-debilitating headaches have all but disappeared in the two months since getting the popular inner-ear piercing as a last-ditch effort to relieve her chronic pain. Could this cool-girl accessory also mean the end of throbbing headaches that, according to the Mayo Clinic, can cause vomiting, blurred vision, fainting, and more.
As Juline Michele Bryson, MD, assistant professor of neurology at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC, tells us, the real answer is no — but that doesn't mean it doesn't work for some people. Wait, what? "There is zero scientific evidence that daith piercings reduce migraines, and most of the headache world would say absolutely not," Dr. Bryson explains. "But who's to say that piercing the skin doesn't cause a release of endorphins, which can block pain." But most likely, she tells us, it's a placebo effect — and the feel-good powers of the placebo effect are stronger than you think.
"I absolutely believe in the power of placebo," Dr. Bryson says, citing a 2016 study published in the journal Pain, in which people reported a reduction in back pain, even after being given pills labeled as placebo pills. She notes that the logic connecting daith piercings and migraine relief — in which daith piercing can go into one of the acupuncture sites that’s supposed to relieve headaches — may also be built on placebo effect. “Here’s the thing about acupuncture: there have been many studies on acupuncture, but one of the most interesting ones found that sham acupuncture was just as effective as real acupuncture,” she says.
Research research supports Bryson’s theory: One informal poll of 1,107 respondents with daith piercings, conducted by the website and app MigrainePal, found that 64% experienced a reduction in migraine frequency. But the reported benefits dropped off the longer the respondent had the piercing; of the roughly 311 respondents who had their daith piercing for less than a month, 25% reported having no attacks since getting the body modification. That number slipped to 16% of people who said they'd had their daith piercings for one to two years and have suffered no attacks during that time.
Further, a global survey of 3000 people who received daith piercings for their headaches, conducted by Dr. Chris Blatchley of the London Migraine Clinic, has found promising nascent results; the institution has become the first clinic to offer daith ear piercing as part of a medical treatment for migraines. Though these surveys are small, and lack published research, their results may indicate the important role that placebos can potentially play.
“For a daith piercing, if you get it done and all of a sudden you can touch it and talk about that with friends and think about it and know it's there, it’s reinforcing these positive messages in the brain and increasing serotonin, epinephrine, and dopamine responses, all of which can block pain,” Dr. Bryson explains. “That said, I don't believe that it’s actually changing any migraine pathways. I believe that they," the migraine sufferers who say they've seen good results from the piercing, "believe in it." And one look at Kroyer's testimonial in the Daily Mail, or even commenters on MigrainePal, shows that those patients do indeed believe.
While Dr. Bryson admits that most experts shy away from encouraging treatments not scientifically proven, like this one, she offers a different perspective. “If a patient believes that it worked for him or her, why am I going to put a chemical in his or her body?" she says. "I always have a hard time calling out placebos, because if we can do something that won’t harm somebody, something that won’t give the patient an ulcer, give kidney damage, or hurt the liver, then why should we take that away from them?”
That said, Dr. Bryson offers some healthy context, too: If you are one of the 18% of women or 6% of men who, suffer from migraines, according to the Migraine Research Foundation, try first-line prescription treatments (such as antihypertensives and anti-inflammatories — or a soon-to-be released drug that’s the first made specifically to treat migraines, due out in the next six to twelve months), over-the-counter options (including magnesium and riboflavin supplements, which can take about three months to produce benefits), and lifestyle tweaks (like getting a full eight hours of sleep, regular exercise, and going easy on the caffeine) — all of which are proven to provide relief.
Because it's believed that migraines, through genetically linked, are not triggered by the same genes in every patient, it takes a lot of trial and error to find the right treatment for you, Dr. Bryson says. And if you believe that getting the coolest piercing may also help reduce the raging pain that comes with migraines, or even prevent them from happening at all? Then you do you. Just be aware that some piercings may damage cartilage, Dr. Bryson reminds us, and be diligent about cleaning your new body art. Because an infected ear can cause a world of hurt — the kind for which placebos aren’t as easy to come by.