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Acupuncture Impacts Brain to Reduce Pain

Acupuncture and brain

Use of brain imaging has revealed that acupuncture affects the brain’s ability to reduce and regulate pain. This study was the first of its kind to provide imaging of how acupuncture affects specific receptors in the brain that process and suppress pain signals.

The researchers at the University of Michigan Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center and the University of Michigan Medical School showed that acupuncture increases the binding ability of mu-opoid receptors (MOR) in areas of the brain that are responsible for regulating pain signals. Morphine, codeine, and other opioid painkillers are believed to be effective because they bind to mu-opoid receptors in the brain and spinal cord, reducing or eliminating pain.

Acupuncture has been the subject of many pain studies over the years, and many of the results have been encouraging. One study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2007, found that six months of acupuncture treatment was more effective than conventional treatment for lower back pain. A 2005 study in the British Journal of Medicine reported that acupuncture reduced tension headache rates by nearly 50 percent.

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People who have osteoarthritis of the knee may want to consider acupuncture after a 2004 study in the British Medical Journal noted that the ancient Chinese practice was better than drugs alone. The same journal in 2005 published the results of a study which found acupuncture plus pelvic strengthening exercises help relieve pelvic girdle pain during pregnancy.

The current study included 20 women who had had fibromyalgia for at least one year and who experienced pain at least half of the time. The investigators used positron emission tomography (PET) during the first acupuncture treatment and then again after the eighth. They witnessed both short-term and long-term increases in MOR binding potential.

The findings of this latest study are important because it expands the direction of acupuncture and pain research and it indicates that people with chronic pain who take opioids may be more responsive to their medications (and thus may be able to reduce their dose) when they undergo acupuncture.

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