Study: Acupuncture May Change the Way the Brain Perceives Pain

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Shelby Ross

The idea of pricking your body with needles in order to relieve pain seems nothing if not counterintuitive, but thousands of acupuncture patients swear the treatments are effective in addressing pain of all kinds.

But how does it work? How much of the relief is due to the placebo effect — the mere perception that the needles are actually dulling pain — as opposed to a real biological change in the way nerves signal the brain to pain? (More on Time.com: Who Are the 5 Most Stressed Americans? The Answer May Surprise You)

A new study lends support to the notion that acupuncture may actually modulate the brain’s perception of pain. In a study that used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to track brain activity both before and during acupuncture, researchers led by Dr. Nina Theysohn at the University Hospital in Essen, Germany, and colleagues at University of Duisburg-Essen documented a specific pattern of brain activation during acupuncture that may represent an accessible pathway for addressing pain.

In the small trial, which involved 18 volunteers, each volunteer was placed in the fMRI scanner and then given a small electrical stimulus in the left ankle to generate pain. Acupuncture needles were then inserted at three places on the right side corresponding to regions known to modulate the ankle pain, and the fMRI was repeated. Comparing the brain scans before and after acupuncture, the scientists found that areas of the brain that were active during the pain stimulus were dampened during acupuncture, suggesting that the needles actually do cause a change in the way that the brain perceives and processes pain. (More on Time.com: Amnesia and a Camera: Photos as Memories)

“This study helps to clarify the brain’s function in terms of how or where it processes pain and where that processing can be modified by the application of acupuncture intervention,” says Dr. Michael Brant-Zawadzki, an adjunct professor of radiology at Stanford University, commenting on the study.

What’s most exciting, says Brant-Zawadzki, is that the brain regions identified in the fMRI scans may lead researchers to find a more standardized approach to treating pain that may help more sufferers. “If we could find one part of the brain that modulates the pain response in the vast majority of individuals, we could address pain through acupuncture or drugs or even sham acupuncture,” he says, “and we would have a better approach to the pain conundrum than we currently have.” (More on Time: Could Painkiller Use in Pregnancy Cause Problems in Baby Boys?)

The study authors were not able to match up the brain regions activated by acupuncture with similar scans of those treated with medications or other pain relieving treatments, but such studies could help to narrow down the most potent pathways to alleviating pain of all kinds. Theysohn cautions that the findings are too preliminary to draw any conclusions about how acupuncture actually works, acknowledging that “we don’t exactly know what is going on in there, but we can say that brain activity in all regions of interest was lessened under acupuncture.” It might be further proof that acupuncture’s benefits may, after all, be all in your head.

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