The research on acupuncture for pain is heading in an exciting new direction! The latest breakthrough study published in the medical journal Brain this year showed promising data that took into account acupuncture’s local effects for pain as well as acupuncture’s effect on the brain. Acupuncturists have been frustrated for years by studies that focus on just one effect of acupuncture, ignoring the holistic nature of the medicine that treats the mind and body together. It is very important that research has finally turned a corner and is looking at multiple effects of acupuncture during treatment.
To briefly summarize, the researchers used before and after MRI of the patient’s brain to compare sham acupuncture controls (non-insertion needles) with real acupuncture to treat carpal tunnel pain. The study concludes that real acupuncture at the affected hand led to measurable improvements in outcomes both at the affected wrist and in the brain. Additionally brain remapping immediately after real acupuncture was linked to long-term improvements in carpal tunnel pain. No physiologic improvements resulted from sham acupuncture.
So what exactly is happening to the brain during acupuncture in this study? The somatosensory cortex area in the brain has specific points that correspond to the wrist and these were assessed as having undergone neuroplastic changes associated with decreased pain. This means that acupuncture stimulation directed the brain to rewire its pain memory of carpal tunnel wrist pain, allowing it to respond to local treatment and heal more efficiently. This is an incredible find, and points the direction clearly for where future research on acupuncture and pain needs to concentrate.
At Triangle Acupuncture Clinic we see many cases of chronic pain that have a neurologic component where essentially the brain can’t “forget” that there was once an injury to the back for example. This leads to lifetimes of suffering and the overuse of opiods and painkillers. The fact that acupuncture is being shown to deal with this component of pain management is a very big deal indeed! It could have truly groundbreaking implications in the future of medicine should hospitals and doctors choose to utilize acupuncture more frequently.