Acupuncture has been used to relieve pain for 4,000 years, but scientists have had a hard time pinning down exactly how it works. A new study conducted by a team of scientists at the University of Rochester Medical Center and published online May 30 in Nature Neuroscience, identifies adenosine as a central player in the pain-relieving effects of acupuncture in the body. Adenosine is one of the body's natural painkillers, has anti-inflammatory properties and is known to help regulate sleep. It's pain-killing properties become active in the skin after an injury to inhibit nerve signals and ease pain in a way similar to lidocaine.
Study Methods and Results
The research team performed acupuncture treatments on mice that had discomfort in one paw. The mice each received a 30-minute acupuncture treatment with very fine needles rotated gently every five minutes, much as is done in standard acupuncture treatments with people. The researchers found that:
- In mice with normal functioning levels of adenosine, acupuncture reduced discomfort by two-thirds.
- In mice genetically engineered to have no adenosine receptor, acupuncture had no effect.
- During and immediately after an acupuncture treatment, the level of adenosine in the tissues near the needles was 24 times greater than before the treatment.
East Meets West
Once the researchers recognized adenosine’s role in the Eastern medicine practice of acupuncture, they tried adding a Western medicine drug called deoxycoformycin, which is used in the treatment of leukemia. Deoxycoformycin makes it harder for the tissues to remove adenosine. The added drug boosted the effects of acupuncture treatment dramatically, nearly tripling the accumulation of adenosine in the muscles and more than tripling the length of time the treatment was effective.
As someone who has received a number of positive benefits from acupuncture, I'm always glad to see research that helps to reveal some of the mechanisms behind the practice. This study is a good example of how Eastern and Western medicine can complement one another. I've long believed that we should be bringing them together more often.
Of course, studies combining acupuncture and deoxycoformycin will need to be done on humans before doctors can begin using it as a pain treatment option. But this study is a first step in the right direction.
Goldman N, et al. Adenosine A1 receptors mediate local anti-nociceptive effects of acupuncture. Nat Neurosci. 2010 May 30.
Acupuncture's Molecular Effects Pinned Down. University of Rochester Medical Center. Press Release. May 30, 2010.