New Information About Acupuncture

While acupuncture has been around for centuries, the East-Asian medical treatment has remained a bit of a mystery. Acupuncture is an effective pain reliever, but how does it work? Researchers posit that acupuncture may activate the body's own, natural pain killers, but how the treatment does its magic at the cellular level is still a great unknown.

Long-Term Pain

Now, a University of Michigan research study gives new evidence that this traditional Chinese medical treatment aids the brain in building up its ability to handle pain long term. The results of this study appeared in the Journal of NeuroImage.

Researchers from the U of M's Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center saw that acupuncture served to increase the availability of mu-opoid receptors (MOR) for binding in those areas of the brain that work with and mute pain signals, such as the amygdala, thalamus, caudate, insula, and cingulate.  It is thought that opioid painkillers, for instance codeine and morphine, work through binding with these opioid receptors found in both the brain and in the spinal cord.

Richard E. Harris, Ph.D., a researcher at the U of M's Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center as well as a research assistant professor of anesthesiology with the university's medical school commented that, "The increased binding availability of these receptors was associated with reductions in pain."

Sham Acupuncture

Harris explains that a major implication of this study is that those patients treated with acupuncture for chronic pain may be more sensitive to traditional opioid medications since the Chinese treatment seems to give the receptors greater binding availability. This apparent benefit is not negated by a recent controversy in which sham acupuncture was shown to be just as effective as the real deal in relieving chronic pain. The acupuncture and sham acupuncture groups experienced a near-identical lessening of chronic pain, said Harris, "But the mechanisms leading to pain relief are distinctly different."

Brain Scans

Participants in the study included 20 female fibromyalgia patients, who had been suffering from the condition for at least one year. The participants all suffered from pain at least half of the time. For the duration of the study, the participants agreed not to begin any new medications for fibromyalgia pain. The participants underwent brain scans using positron emission tomography (PET) during their first assessments, followed by further scans, one month after completing their eighth treatments with acupuncture.  

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