ancient Chinese technique of sticking needles into the skin to
relieve pain, nausea and many other ills can indeed make people feel
better — more mellow and more energized.
Many researchers used to think this lovely state was mostly
due to the placebo effect. But a growing body of evidence —
brain scans, ultrasound and other techniques — shows that
acupuncture triggers direct, measurable effects on the body, including
perhaps, activation of precisely the regions of the brain that would be
predicted by ancient Chinese theory.
"The quality and amount of research being conducted now on
acupuncture is improving greatly," said Peter Wayne, director of
research at the New England School of Acupuncture. The school has
received $3.2 million in federal grants to study acupuncture on women
undergoing chemotherapy for ovarian cancer, on teenagers with
endometriosis, and on the accuracy of acupuncturists in diagnosing
At UC Irvine, researchers have shown that when a needle is
placed in a point on the side of the foot that Chinese theorists
associate with vision, sure enough, the visual cortex in the brain
"lights up" on fMRI, or functional magnetic resonance imaging scans,
though the cause and effect are not totally clear.
Neuroscientist Seung-Schik Yoo at Brigham and Women's
Hospital has shown that when a needle is placed in a point called
pericardium 6 on the wrist, known in Chinese medicine as a sensitive
point for nausea, the part of the brain that controls the vestibular
system (which affects balance and nausea) lights up on scans.
Acupuncture has been used so far by 8.2 million Americans,
according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative
Medicine, a government agency. Some insurers now pay for acupuncture,
which is considered extremely safe.
More than 40 clinical trials have shown that acupuncture
reduces nausea following chemotherapy or surgery, said Ted Kaptchuk, an
assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who is also a
doctor of Chinese medicine.
In one of the best studies, Dr. Tong J. Gan, director of
clinical research in anesthesiology at Duke University Medical Center,
showed last year that acupuncture on the wrist point was "as good as
giving ondansetron," an anti-nausea drug, for postoperative nausea and
And a recent randomized, controlled study of 570 people with
osteoarthritis of the knee showed that real acupuncture, as opposed to
a fake form used as a control, reduced pain and increased function by
"This is roughly the same effect size" as with ibuprofen-type
drugs, said Dr. Brian Berman, the study leader and director of the
Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland School of
Medicine. At the moment, Berman recommends that patients use
acupuncture with, not instead of, pain medications, though it may help
reduce the amount of medication needed.
Perhaps the most intriguing scientific question is not
whether acupuncture works, but how. In acupuncture theory, there are
360 major points in the skin that lie along the 12 major channels, or
meridians, in the body, through which the qi flows. (Pronounced "chee,"
qi is the Chinese term for vital energy.)
In Western terms, the acupuncture points correspond to areas
of decreased electrical resistance on the skin. Since the 1970s,
Western researchers have known that one of the ways acupuncture works
is by releasing endorphins, the body's natural painkillers.
In a series of classic experiments, researchers hooked
together the circulatory systems of two animals, but performed
acupuncture on only one. Both animals showed evidence of less pain.
Acupuncture seems to calm precisely the part of the brain
that controls the emotional response to pain, said Dr. Kathleen K. S.
Hui, a neuroscientist at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at
Massachusetts General Hospital, which has a federal grant to study
acupuncture's effects on the brain. Her brain scan studies show
decreased activation in deeper brain structures in the limbic system,
which governs emotions and other physiological functions.
Researchers have also shown that acupuncture boosts levels of
serotonin, which is often deficient in people with depression, and
lowers levels of norepinephrine and dopamine, which are often elevated
in sufferers of stress and pain.
Precisely how signals travel from acupuncture points to the
brain is still a matter of some debate. Most researchers, Hui among
them, believe that electrical signals travel along nerve tracts that
branch off from the brain stem to the limbic system. Others, like Dr.
Helene Langevin, a neurologist at the University of Vermont College of
Medicine, thinks signals may also pass along the 12 major acupuncture
meridians that run through the body.
For years, Western scientists doubted the existence of these
meridians. But in a series of studies using ultrasound, Langevin has
found evidence that the meridians lie along the sheets of connective
tissue that surround organs. By analyzing meridians in the arm of a
cadaver, Langevin said she discovered "that 80% of the acupuncture
points coincided to where the major connective tissue plane was. We
also did a statistical analysis — this was not due to chance."
The bottom line? At long last, Western scientists are
beginning to show, by their own standards, just what Chinese
acupuncturists have been saying for millenniums: That the effects of
acupuncture are real. And that, at least for certain problems and to
some degree, acupuncture can help relieve pain and suffering.
© 2005 Los Angeles Times
April 4, 2005