The Chinese therapy of acupuncture began over 4,000 years ago but has only been prevalent in Western medicine for the last several hundred years. Acupuncture focuses on improving the body’s energy, or qi by clearing the meridians that carry the life force through the body. Blockages or imbalances in the body’s qi are believed to cause chronic pain.
While acupuncture has been shown to relieve pain, the exact science and medicine of the treatment has not been determined. Skeptical medical professionals believe that acupuncture causes nothing more than a placebo effect, where the body reacts to the mind’s expectations. While this theory has been fought by ardent acupuncture devotees, little conclusive evidence exists to rule out the idea of the placebo effect.
However, medical researchers working to determine the exact cause of acupuncture pain relief have found some interesting connections between the treatment and pain relief. In initial research during the 1980s, scientists believed that acupuncture released endorphins into the body which helped relieve pain. Current scientists point to a different hormone. Adenosine, a pain relief hormone that is released in response to an injury, is produced at 24 times its normal rate following the insertion of an acupuncture needle, an act the body considers a small “injury.” Additional research has shown that acupuncture heightens brain activity in the areas of the brain that control rest and relaxation, while simultaneously calming the portion of the brain that registers pain. Acupuncture also has been shown to reduce inflammation and increase blood flow.
Many connections have been discovered between acupuncture and modern science. For example, some of the 365 acupuncture points correspond to nerve bundles or muscle trigger points and several of 14 meridians of the body correspond to major arteries and nerves. These connections to modern medicine begin to explain the science of this ancient medicine, but many skeptics are still unsure.
The placebo effect and a release of adenosine will happen with any treatment where a needle enters the body. However, a recent study tested real acupuncture against “sham acupuncture” (needle insertions in non-acupuncture points) and showed that both treatments caused a release of endorphins but only real acupuncture increased the number of neurotransmitter receptors in the brain. The increase in scientific research on acupuncture mirrors the growing demand for the treatment, as scientists hope to unravel the mystifying Chinese medical practice of acupuncture.
The most common use of acupuncture is for patients with chronic pain. Although diagnosis is an extensive process, the release of neurotransmitters in the brain has provided great relief to patients suffering from chronic ailments such as rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia and low back pain. Many low back pain sufferers have found relief from acupuncture and avoided surgery or more severe treatments. Since the American Society of Anesthesia has added acupuncture as a recommended treatment for chronic pain management, Non-Surgical Orthopedics now offers acupuncture treatments to its patients to relieve low back pain.