Researchers at University of Michigan have found that acupuncture alters the way the brain manages long-term pain regulation. The study suggests that the procedure increases the brain’s ability to bind pain-killing opioid drugs.
Acupuncture has been a thorn in the side of scientists for some time, no more so than this year when sham acupuncture treatment was shown to be just as effective as true treatment. How the procedure was able to relieve pain, once a mystery, now seemed to be largely a placebo effect. People felt better after acupuncture because they thought they should feel better.
But even as that study was published in BMJ, an editorial appeared in the same issue warning against drawing too many conclusions until the mechanism of acupuncture was better understood. So the hunt continued the pursuit of acupuncture’s ability to decrease chronic pain.
Using brain scans, Dr. Richard E. Harris and his team were able to see that acupuncture “increased the binding availability of mu-opoid receptors (MOR) in regions of the brain that process and dampen pain signals – specifically the cingulate, insula, caudate, thalamus and amygdala.” Opiod drugs such as morphine bind to those receptors. The researchers think that the higher binding availability caused by acupuncture enable the drugs to work more effectively in patients suffering from chronic pain.
But what of the ‘sham’ treatments? The argument becomes somewhat muddled, as the actual mechanism by which acupuncture works is still poorly understood. In the traditional procedure, needles are placed in specific tissue regions important to body meridians and Qi, a vital life force in the body. A sham procedure still uses needles, but the insertions are not in the traditional regions. Harris claims that while both procedures do cause a reduction in pain, “the mechanisms leading to pain relief are distinctly different."
With the current study, published in Journal of NeuroImage, true acupuncture has been shown to not necessarily rely on the placebo effect, that there is some physiological difference that occurs in the brain in response to the treatment. Therefore, it is thought that the procedure could be used in tandem with opioid treatments to help increase the alleviation of chronic pain. Just how sham acupuncture creates a cessation in pain remains to be seen. But if it is merely placebo, the interesting fact remains, that “needles as a placebo have a greater effect than placebo pills, for some reason that is not fully understood.”