Sufferers from tension headaches may soon be regularly treated by acupuncture if research at the University of Exeter is successful.
Researchers at the Centre for Complementary Health Studies in the postgraduate medical school at the university have finalised plans to test whether acupuncture, the ancient Far Eastern practice of inserting sharp needles - traditionally made of bamboo - into selected points around the body can prevent painful headaches.
Orthodox medicine has little in the way of treatment to offer sufferers from such headaches.
Adrian White, research fellow at the centre, said few rigorous clinical trials of acupuncture have been made.
Although many claims have been made for the technique, the only condition where acupuncture has been proven to work is in the prevention of nausea and vomiting during pregnancy. Studies in the west on the use of acupuncture to relieve migraine and arthritis have produced mixed results.
Dr White hopes his survey will provide hard evidence that the technique works, and help counteract the claims of sceptics in conventional medicine who dismiss acupuncture alongside other unconventional treatments as "new age" quackery.
In the study, doctors from around the country will treat patients suffering from tension headaches with genuine and "sham" acupuncture over 12 months.
Dr White will collate the data and publish the findings of the survey. He said: "So far, better quality studies are less likely to give positive results."
Acupuncture has been practised in China and the Far East for more than 4,000 years. The treatment received a big boost in the mid 1950s under Chairman Mao, who saw it as a way of providing cheap health care for the Communist Chinese masses.
The technique received wide-spread attention in the west during a diplomatic visit to China when an aide of President Nixon received acupuncture after emergency treatment for appendicitis.
Nixon was so impressed that on his return to the United States he set up a study for research into acupuncture as an alternative to conventional medicine.
Dr White admits that there is still uncertainty as to how acupuncture works. One explanation is that the action of the needles enhances the body's natural tendency to repair itself.
He dismissed the traditional idea that acupuncture manipulates the flow of so-called "energy forces" in the body. Dr White said: "The most likely explanation for its beneficial qualities is that the needles, once inserted, stimulate the nervous system into releasing pain-relieving chemicals in the brain."