How does acupuncture work? It’s a question that doesn’t need to be asked by practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine. But in Western medicine, the answers to the questions “how” and “why” are crucial before a remedy begins to be routinely recommended to combat a health problem.
In this story, the question extends to: how does acupuncture work in reducing pain? A new study used MRI scans to capture pictures of the brain to see how acupuncture affects the brain’s processing of pain. The results show that acupuncture is effective, and they were presented recently at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.
So far, the role of acupuncture in the perception and processing of pain has been controversial. What the MRI does is allow scientists to see the parts of the brain that are activated during pain perception. And then to see what happens to them.
In the study, 18 healthy volunteers underwent MRI while an electrical pain stimulus was attached to the left ankle. Acupuncture needles were then placed at three places on the right side, including between the toes, below the knee, and near the thumb. With the needles in place, MRI was repeated while electrical currents were again directed at the left ankle. Researchers compared the images and data of what happened with and without acupuncture.
They found that brain areas involved in pain perception were significantly less activated when acupuncture was used. These included four main areas in the brain, all significantly reduced when acupuncture was used while the researchers applied electrical pain stimulation.
In addition to the assumed specific effects on the pain signal, acupuncture also affected brain activation in some interesting areas. These were the areas that control what people expect of pain. The “anterior insula,” for example, plays a role in transforming pain sensation to a person’s thought process, and represents a part of pain sensation. Reductions here and elsewhere mean that acupuncture influenced the sensory perception of pain.
So that is what this study has shown. Acupuncture’s well-known pain relief seems to operate by lowering how we perceive pain and lowering our predictions of pain. Any way you slice it, there is a definite link between a millennia-old therapy and the pain we all feel.