While pain relief using acupuncture has become more widely accepted in recent years, the scientific processes that occur during acupuncture have not been fully understood. Now breakthrough research from the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York provides a clue to one of acupuncture’s pain relieving mechanisms.
What Does the Study Show?
The research team conducted experiments to look at the molecule adenosine, a natural pain killer released by the body. Adenosine is vital for everyday bodily functions such as regulating sleep and reducing inflammation.
We already know that adenosine becomes active in the skin when it becomes damaged, acting as a local pain killer, but the researchers wanted to look for the presence of adenosine in the deeper tissues targeted by fine needles during acupuncture treatment.
The study, which was published in Nature Neuroscience, involved a number of mice, some with normal functioning levels of adenosine, some that had been engineered to lack receptors for adenosine so they would be resistant to it, and some that had been given drugs to extend the effects of adenosine.
The mice, which all had discomfort in one paw, were each given acupuncture treatment in the knee for half an hour. Soreness was measured before and after the treatment using nerve sensitivity measures. Levels of adenosine in the tissue around the acupuncture site were also measured.
Results showed that adenosine levels were 24 times higher in the tissue around the acupuncture point after the treatment than before. The pain experienced by the mice with normal functioning adenosine decreased by two thirds. There was no pain relieving effect on the mice that were resistant to adenosine.
The pain relieving effects of the acupuncture lasted three times longer in the mice that had been given the adenosine enhancing drug deoxycoformycin, which is usually given to leukemia patients.
Will the Study Increase Acceptance of Acupuncture?
Although this research only partly explains the pain relieving properties of acupuncture, and further clinical trials will be required to back up the evidence provided, this study may help to increase acceptance of acupuncture as a mainstream method of pain relief.
Dr Maiken Nedergaard, a neuroscientist and leader of the study stated that, “Acupuncture has been a mainstay of medical treatment in certain parts of the world for 4,000 years, but because it has not been understood completely, many people have remained skeptical. In this work, we provide information about one physical mechanism through which acupuncture reduces pain in the body.”
The acceptance of acupuncture as a method of pain relief has already increased in recent years:
- In the U.S. the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), part of the National Institutes of Health, funds research into acupuncture for various types of pain including back pain, menstrual pain, and pain after dental surgery.
- In the UK the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) guidelines recommend the use of acupuncture to treat lower back pain, meaning that UK citizens can receive acupuncture treatment for free when they experience this type of pain.
- In 2007 the National Health Interview Survey showed that over three million Americans had used acupuncture in the previous year, and the main conditions for which acupuncture was used were back pain, joint pain, neck pain, and headaches or migraines.
The pain relieving functions of acupuncture have often been ridiculed by western medicine, with many believing that it only works as a placebo, where patients perceive a reduction in the amount of pain they are experiencing because they believe that acupuncture will reduce pain. This study should go some way to disproving the placebo theories and showing that there is a biological basis to the pain relieving properties of acupuncture.