Acupuncture, an ancient Chinese medical treatment dating back more than 5,000 years, can be controversial. There’s no question that acupuncture produces effects that boost people’s feelings of wellbeing.
However, many modern medical researchers still don’t consider acupuncture as a legitimate medical therapy for the many conditions it’s touted for because they still can’t explain what makes it work.
As researchers at Harvard take a closer look, they’re starting to analyze measurable – and beneficial – changes in the brain that they say can only be the result of acupuncture.
Acupuncture involves stimulating areas of the body that in Traditional Chinese Medicine are considered influential to the flow of energy (called qi) through the body. Acupuncture stimulates these points of the body using ultra-thin needles. Although many people fear needles, almost no pain is involved because those used in acupuncture are so thin compared to syringes used for injections. In fact, acupuncture is traditionally used to safely relieve pain.
Acupuncture Improves Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Research at Harvard, Massachusetts General Hospital and other institutions shows that electro-acupuncture (where a small electric current is sent through the acupuncture needles) not only eases the pain of carpal tunnel syndrome in the wrists, but also makes helpful shifts in the behavior and connection of the brain’s neurons.1
In these tests, the scientists found that acupuncture reshapes the neuronal network in a part of the brain called the somatosensory cortex where the pain of carpal tunnel syndrome is processed. And that change eases the discomfort. In addition, the acupuncture alters blood flow to the wrist in a way that also helps improve the condition.
“In other words,” says researcher Vitaly Napadow, “both peripheral and central neurophysiological changes in CTS may be halted or even reversed by electro-acupuncture interventions that provide prolonged and regulated input to the brain – something that future, longer-term neuroimaging studies should explore.”
Treating the Traumatized Brain
Other research indicates that acupuncture could be helpful as part of the treatment for some brain trauma injuries.
A study of people who experience chronic headaches from brain trauma shows that adding acupuncture to their therapies – particularly auricular acupuncture (where needles are used on points on the ears) –provides significant pain relief.2
And a study at the University of Colorado Boulder shows that acupressure – where, instead of needles, pressure from the fingertips is applied to acupuncture points – may help improve the thinking skills of people suffering mild traumatic brain injuries (TBIs).3
“We found that the study subjects with mild traumatic brain injury who were treated with acupressure showed improved cognitive function, scoring significantly better on tests of working memory when compared to the TBI subjects in the placebo control group,” says researcher Theresa Hernandez. “This suggests to us that acupressure could be an effective adjunct therapy for those suffering from TBI.”
Other benefits of acupuncture include:
- Reducing the frequency of migraine headaches: Worldwide, an estimated one billion people suffer from migraines. A study in China on 147 people with migraines shows that acupuncture can reduce the number of headaches suffered per year. An editorial accompanying the study in the British Medical Journal concludes, “We now have good evidence that acupuncture is an effective treatment for episodic migraine.”4
- Relieving insomnia: A review study in Asia of research involving people who have trouble sleeping finds that after about three weeks of acupuncture insomniacs usually “experience significant improvement.”5 Another study shows that for cancer patients suffering sleep problems caused by chemotherapy, acupuncture is a sleep aid that is “safe, feasible and effective.”6
- Normalizing the part of the brain altered by drug addiction and potentially being helpful in treating drug abuse. Lab tests in Asia demonstrate that acupuncture may reshape the ventral tegmental area of the brain and potentially make it easier to recover from heroin addiction.7
It’s important to remember that acupuncture is rarely a primary treatment for any health condition and is certainly not a panacea. It’s most useful as an adjunct therapy added to other treatments in your healthcare regimen. But that being said, acupuncture is a wonderful supportive therapy that has very few, if any, unwanted side effects. Best of all, it boosts feelings of wellbeing – and we could all use a little of that.