Acupuncture is a millennia-old practice that originated in China, where thin needles are inserted at specific points in the body. It is commonly used to treat pain, relieve stress, and improve sleep and digestive function. Acupuncture is effective in the treatment of peripheral neuropathy, with a recent systematic review reporting that 15 randomized controlled trials showed a beneficial effect.
But science has only just begun to examine how acupuncture works.
Decades of research shows acupuncture is effective
Since the 1950s, scientific research has shown acupuncture’s effects on the peripheral nervous system, endocrine and immune systems, cardiovascular system, and digestive system. By stimulating the body’s various systems, acupuncture can help to relieve pain and promote healing. For example, endorphins, the body’s own morphine-like chemicals, are released when needles penetrate the skin. Another chemical involved in pain control, adenosine, is released in the skin during acupuncture. But does acupuncture change how the brain functions?
Recent research, published in the prestigious journal Brain, has shown how acupuncture may relieve pain in people with carpal tunnel syndrome, a painful condition caused by compression of the nerves at the wrist. Eight weeks of acupuncture improved pain and neurophysiological outcomes not only at the wrist, but also in the primary somatosensory cortex, a brain region involved in pain perception. Symptoms remained improved for at least 3 months afterwards.
This study is important as it demonstrated that true acupuncture (i.e. corresponding to acupuncture points in Traditional Chinese Medicine) elicited neurophysiological changes, whereas sham treatment (inserting needles to non-acupuncture points) did not. It is important to note however, that sham treatment also reduces pain, despite not changing neural functioning. This may be related to local repair and healing responses where the needle is placed. For example, acupuncture elicits anti-inflammatory effects by reducing the activity of inflammatory cells called macrophages. More scientific research is required to tease out precisely how stimulating specific acupuncture points activates the body’s own healing mechanisms.
Neuroimaging studies have also revealed that acupuncture reduces activity in brain regions that modulate emotion. Negative emotions or stress can often result in painful physical symptoms, and exacerbate existing chronic pain. Indeed, there is a major overlap in the neurobiological mechanisms that process pain and mood. Therefore, treating mood and stress can often result in reduced pain.
Acupuncture compliments western medicine
Acupuncture is a safe, effective treatment for pain, sleep and stress, among other ailments. Though a lot of new information has come to light, particularly how acupuncture can change the brain, there remains a vast chasm of unanswered questions. What we do know, however, is that the ancient wisdom of acupuncture highly complements Western medicine to counteract the effects of modern stresses and relieve our aches and pains.
1. Dimitrova et al (2017) Acupuncture for the treatment of peripheral neuropathy: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine Mar;23(3):164-179 2. Maeda et al (2017). Rewiring the primary somatosensory cortex in carpal tunnel syndrome with acupuncture. Brain. 140, 4, 1 914–927. 3. Pomeranz & Chiu (1976). Naloxone blockade of acupuncture analgesia: endorphin implicated. Life Sci. 19:1757–1762. 4. Goldman et al. (2010) Adenosine A1 receptors mediate local anti-nociceptive effects of acupuncture. Nat Neurosci 2010;13:883–888 5. Hui et al (2010). Acupuncture, the limbic system, and the anticorrelated networks of the brain. Hum Brain Mapp, 157(1-2):81-90 6. Niu et al (2017). Interaction of acupuncture treatment and manipulation laterality modulated by the default mode network. Mol Pain. 13:1744806916683684