Acupuncture really does change brain’s perception of pain

Washington: A new study from the University Hospital in Essen, Germany, suggests that acupuncture really does alter the brain’s perception and processing of pain.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers have captured pictures of the brain while patients experienced a pain stimulus with and without acupuncture.

"Until now, the role of acupuncture in the perception and processing of pain has been controversial. Activation of brain areas involved in pain perception was significantly reduced or modulated under acupuncture," said Nina Theysohn.

Acupuncture needles were placed at three places on the right side, including between the toes, below the knee, and near the thumb. Then, fMRI was repeated while electrical currents were again directed at the left ankle.

The researchers then compared the images and data obtained from the fMRI sessions with no acupuncture to those of the fMRI sessions with acupuncture.

The results showed that during acupuncture, activation in most of the pain-processing areas of the brain was significantly reduced. Theysohn added that acupuncture also affected brain activation in areas governing the patients`` expectations of pain, similar to a placebo analgesic response.

“Acupuncture is supposed to act through at least two mechanisms—nonspecific expectancy-based effects and specific modulation of the incoming pain signal," Theysohn said.

"Our findings support that both these nonspecific and specific mechanisms exist, suggesting that acupuncture can help relieve pain."

Results of the study were presented today at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).