Acupuncture: Natural Cure for Pain
Using Acupuncture to Treat Health Problems By Laurie Tarkan
Acupuncture is gaining new traction–and respect–in hospitals and doctors’ offices as evidence of its curative power piles up. Here, why this Chinese medicine works–and what health problems it’s best for.
Licensed acupuncturists?point to a 2,500-year history as confirmation that the practice works. The concept that traditionally underlies acupuncture (or needling, as it’s sometimes called) is that the human body has 12 meridians along which energy–called qi (pronounced chee)–flows. When these channels are “blocked” or “unbalanced,” it’s thought, the result is illness and pain. To unblock and balance qi, an acupuncturist inserts needles at strategic points along the meridians and their tributaries.
But for Western doctors and researchers, this explanation does not rise to the level of objective proof. As a result, “there has been an explosion of study on the bio-mechanisms of acupuncture over the last ten years, showing complex, verifiable responses in the brain, nervous system, and connective tissue,” says Arya Nielsen, PhD, senior attending acupuncturist?in the department of Integrative Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. One recent review named more than 20 scientifically established benefits of acupuncture, from increasing the effects of painkilling?endorphins to boosting immune function to releasing anti-inflammatories (which reduce swelling and help healing).
The latest research focuses on the connective tissue that runs under the skin, between muscles and organs. “We suspect that this tissue may be involved in the transmission of the signal from the needle to the brain,” says researcher Helene Langevin, MD, professor of neurology at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. As it turns out, the meridians that acupuncturists?use to “unblock energy” actually line up with the areas of the body where needles can most easily reach this deep connective tissue. It is possible that in ancient China, acupuncturists?mapped out the meridians by palpating connective tissue situated in depressions or “channels” between muscles, she says.
Despite mounting evidence, a major area of inquiry has been whether acupuncture’s effectiveness can be explained away by the placebo effect–meaning that needling works only because patients believe that it will. In tests, researchers have compared “real” acupuncture with “sham” (using toothpicks or very short needles or placing needles at “inactive” points). Many–but not all–of these studies found that both versions provide some relief, but acupuncture experts claim the studies have several flaws.
First, they argue, there’s no such thing as faking acupuncture–inserting a needle, no matter where or how deeply, provokes an effect in the body. Even more significantly, one University of Michigan study used brain imaging to find that the two procedures affect brain chemistry differently. Real treatments triggered the release of pain-relieving endorphins and increased the number of endorphin receptors in the brain. In contrast, the sham therapy merely produced more endorphins–without changing receptor number. Finally, science has started to recognize the legitimacy of the placebo in medicine. “Expectations, the relationship between doctors and patients, and the attention a patient is given all can improve the outcome of any treatment,” says Brian Berman, MD, professor of family and community medicine and director of the University of Maryland Center for Integrative Medicine. “But it’s only been recently that conventional doctors have acknowledged that the mind does have some power in the process of healing.”