Research is finally catching up to illuminate the many ways acupuncture is an effective tool for chronic pain. A wide body of clinical evidence now agrees that acupuncture is very safe while also being an excellent alternative to opioids and other pain medications. Acupuncture’s mechanism of action on the body is not limited to just increasing endorphins to illicit a feel-good response and mask pain. Scientists have now shown that acupuncture has a clear physiological basis for its therapeutic effects.
• Research using functional MRI in carpal tunnel patients has found that acupuncture stimulation “quiets down” the activity of the somatosensory cortex area of the brain that seems hyperactive in patients with chronic pain (1,2). This response to acupuncture can allow the brain and body to let go of longstanding pain signals that seem to almost get stuck when pain is present over time.
• Acupuncture needling can modulate proteins and fibroblast cells in connective tissue, which seems to restore tissue integrity (3,4). This is an exciting new area of research that could lead to much progress in restoring proper functioning of muscle and joints after a long period of chronic pain.
• Acupuncture deactivates the limbic brain area, responsible for emotional homeostasis and processes that are important in patients dealing with chronic pain (5). It is well understood that daily pain over many months or years has a negative effect on mental health and wellbeing. While depression and anxiety are common in those with chronic pain, acupuncture can help the area of the brain responsible for mood rebalance.
In a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials that included 21,000 patients with chronic musculoskeletal pain, acupuncture was found to be substantially better than standard care and significantly better than sham acupuncture (6,7). And just as importantly, a different meta-analysis found that in trials including 18,000 patients with chronic pain, roughly 90% of the pain-relieving effects of acupuncture were sustained at 12 months (8).
At Triangle Acupuncture Clinic we have been treating chronic pain for over 17 years with great success. After an initial series of treatments to relieve symptoms, patients tend to continue acupuncture monthly or quarterly as needed. The somewhat unexpected bonus feature of acupuncture is how very relaxing it is. Patients always comment on how much better their mood is with regular acupuncture treatment. As the studies above show, treating the body as well as the mind is exactly where acupuncture excels. Please call either our Raleigh office 919-854-7311, or Chapel Hill 919-933-4480 if you have any questions about your care.
1.Napadow V, Liu J, Li M, et al. Somatosensory cortical plasticity in carpal tunnel syndrome treated by acupuncture. Hum Brain Mapp 2007;28:159–171.
2.Maeda Y, Kim H, Kettner N, et al. Rewiring the primary somatosensory cortex in carpal tunnel syndrome with acupuncture. Brain 2017;140:914–927.
3.Langevin HM, Churchill DL, Cipolla MJ. Mechanical signaling through connective tissue: A mechanism for the therapeutic effect of acupuncture. FASEB J 2001;15:2275– 2282.
4.Langevin HM, Churchill DL, Wu J, et al. Evidence of connective tissue involvement in acupuncture. FASEB J 2002;16:872–874.
5.Hui KK, Liu J, Makris N, et al. Acupuncture modulates the limbic system and subcortical gray structures of the human brain: Evidence from fMRI studies in normal subjects. Hum Brain Mapp 2000;9:13–25
6.Vickers AJ, Cronin AM, Maschino AC, et al. Acupuncture for chronic pain: Individual patient data meta-analysis. Arch Intern Med 2012;172:1444–1453.
7.Vickers AJ, Vertosick EA, Lewith G, et al. Acupuncture for chronic pain: Update of an individual patient data metaanalysis. J Pain 2018;19:455–474.
8.MacPherson H, Vertosick EA, Foster NE, et al The persistence of the effects of acupuncture after a course of treatment: A meta-analysis of patients with chronic pain. Pain 2017;158:784–793.