How Acupuncture Affects the Brain

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A better understanding and appreciation of acupuncture may emerge from a new study about the effects of this alternative therapy on the brain. Researchers at the University of York and the Hull York Medical School in the United Kingdom have found that acupuncture has a significant effect on specific nerve structures.

The role and effectiveness of acupuncture in different areas of healing, especially pain relief and management, is a topic of debate. Although studies have shown that acupuncture can be effective in relieving lower back pain, osteoporosis of the knee, and migraine, an understanding of how acupuncture works has been lacking.

This new study, which was published in Brain Research, indicates that acupuncture has a significant impact on specific neural structures. The study’s authors note that when patients undergo acupuncture treatment, a sensation called deqi can be achieved. An analysis of this response shows that it deactivates areas in the brain that are involved in the processing of pain. Therefore, says Dr. Hugh MacPherson, of the Complementary Medicine Research Group in the University’s Department of Health Sciences, they now have “objective scientific evidence that acupuncture has specific effects within the brain,” and this knowledge will hopefully help researchers better understand how acupuncture works.

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There are already indications that acupuncture is gaining more acceptance among mainstream medicine. In summer 2009, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommended acupuncture as a treatment option for National Health Service patients who suffer with lower back pain. This was the first time NICE had made such a recommendation. Currently, trials are underway at the University of York to determine the effectiveness of acupuncture in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome and depression.

In the United States, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine notes that people use acupuncture primarily for back pain, but also for joint and neck pain, as well as headache. Other research showing promise includes the use of acupuncture for treatment posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), fibromyalgia, depression during pregnancy, preventing cesarean births, and improving pregnancy after in vitro fertilization.

On a global scale, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends acupuncture for a wide range of symptoms and ailments. A list of the conditions, which can be seen on the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture website, include but are not limited to acute bronchitis, acute sinusitis, gingivitis, migraine, hiccups, rheumatoid arthritis, tennis elbow, diarrhea, and constipation.

The new research opens a door into a better understanding of how acupuncture affects the brain and will hopefully lead the way to an ever greater appreciation for this alternative treatment option. Neuroscientist Dr. Aziz Asghar of the York Neuroimaging Centre and the Hull York Medical School noted that whether the deactivations in the brain seen in their research “constitute a mechanism which underlies or contributes to the therapeutic effect of acupuncture is an intriguing possibility which requires further research.”

SOURCES:
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
University of York news release, Feb. 4, 2010

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