New Study Suggests Acupuncture Can Remap the Brain to Relieve Chronic Pain
Acupuncture is a medical treatment that involves inserting very thin needles into the body at very specific locations. The pins are left in for varying amounts of time. Acupuncture is associated with the treatment for pain, migraines, muscles tightness and injury recovery.
The procedure originated in China several thousand years ago and still plays a critical role in Chinese medicine. Doctors who conform to a western style of thinking have developed acupuncture with a focus on human anatomy. Acupuncture has been growing in popularity and is being adapted into many ‘normalized’ medical treatments.
The procedure still has many critics that dismiss the practice as an archaic method of treatment that relies on superstition rather than hard fact. There has been some clinical research into the use of chronic pain treatment by acupuncture. But like many studies into the treatment of chronic pain, many of these have found it difficult to get clear results as setting a baseline for pain is extremely difficult. Each person experiences pain very differently and so setting measurable indicators is very difficult.
But one study that was able to determine objective outcomes was a recent investigation into the treatment of carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS). This is a neuropathic pain disorder caused by pressure on the median nerve in your wrist. A patient's pain levels can be validated by measuring electrical conduction across the median nerve. The study also examined the way the patients' brains reacted to the pain from CTS.
Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans of the selected patients showed that when particular fingers were manipulated that would increase the pressure on the meridian nerve (and therefore the pain associated with CTS) the brain scans showed areas of the brain as blurry. To put it simply, one part of the brain, known as the primary somatosensory cortex is ‘remapped’ by CTS. The scans show this as a blurry patch when the nerve is affected.
During the clinical experiment, patients suffering from CTS were divided into two groups. The first group was given real acupuncture treatment, the second group was given sham acupuncture. Sham acupuncture is a clinical method of acupuncture where acupuncture needles have been blunted making them unable to adequately pierce the body to give ‘true’ acupuncture effects. All patients in the study reported having improved symptoms of CTS (that is they experienced less pain or discomfort). At this point, it would be easy to say that acupuncture is therefore effectively useless as the sham and the true procedure returned the same results. However, the patients that received the real acupuncture actually experience long-term improvement of their health, while sham patients did not. The same part of the brain was re-scanned following the acupuncture treatment and shows that S1 re-mapping immediately following therapy was linked with better long-term symptom reduction.
Researchers have concluded that this study is a good example of the way acupuncture not only works in a bodily and mental response (ie the patients felt better) but it also has proven neurological effects. While there are still many questions to be answered about the ways that acupuncture actually relieves pain, this study is the first in many exciting steps to using acupuncture as a reliable way to treat chronic pain.