Acupuncture May Help Opioid Medications Work Better

Karen Lee Richards Health Guide
  • Acupuncture has been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years to treat pain.  But until recently, scientists couldn't figure out exactly how or why it worked.   They theorized that perhaps it activated the body's natural painkillers. 

    Now researchers at the University of Michigan's Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center have uncovered a clue to at least one way that acupuncture works to help relieve pain .  They found that acupuncture increased the binding availability of mu-opoid receptors in regions of the brain that process and dampen pain signals – specifically the cingulate, insula, caudate, thalamus and amygdala.

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    In the study, fibromyalgia patients were given either traditional Chinese acupuncture or sham acupuncture treatments twice a week for a four-week period.  Positron emission tomography (PET) scans were preformed during the first treatment session and again following the eighth treatment. 

    Those patients given the real acupuncture had both short-term and long-term increases in mu-opioid receptor binding potential in multiple pain and sensory processing regions of their brains.  Those in the sham acupuncture group did not experience the same positive effects. 

    Richard E. Harris, PhD, the lead researcher in this study, said one implication of this research is that patients with chronic pain treated with acupuncture might be more responsive to opioid medications since the receptors seem to have more binding availability.

    In My Opinion...

    I was pleased to see the results of this research because it adds another option that may help chronic pain patients whose medications are not working as well as they need them to.  But I was particularly pleased to see the study was done using fibromyalgia patients.  Since a study in September 2007 found that the mu-opioid receptors in people with FM may have a reduced ability to bind to opioid medications (See Why Painkillers Don't Work on Fibromyalgia ), many doctors have been even more hesitant than ever to prescribed opioids for FM patients.  But even if that 2007 study is valid, this study indicates that combining acupuncture with opioid therapy can provide improved pain relief for FM patients.    

    Harris RE, et al. Traditional Chinese acupuncture and placebo (sham) acupuncture are differentiated by their effects on μ-opioid receptors (MORs) . Neuroimage. 2009 Sep;47(3):1077-85.

Published On: March 16, 2010