Acupuncture Improves Effectiveness of Pain Medications

Karen Lee Richards Health Guide
  • We've long known that acupuncture can be effective in relieving pain, but little has been known about exactly how it works at the cellular level.  Now a new study at the University of Michigan's Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center has shed some light on how acupuncture affects the brain's long-term ability to regulate pain.  The results of the study will appear in the September issue of the Journal of NeuroImage

    Study Methods

    This study viewed the brains of 20 women diagnosed with fibromyalgia for at least a year using a position emission tomography (PET) scanner.  A PET scan was done at each woman's first acupuncture session, then again following the eighth session a month later.  The women did not take any new medications during that period of time. 

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    Study Results

    The PET scans revealed an increase in the receptivity of the mu-opioid receptors to which opioid pain medications bind in areas of the brain that process and dampen pain signals – the cingulate, insula, caudate, thalamus and amygdala regions.  According to the study's author, Dr. Richard E. Harris, this suggests that acupuncture seems to make the body more responsive to opioid pain medications. 

    These findings are also consistent with earlier research showing that patients treated with acupuncture prior to surgery often needed less post-operative medication to control their pain.  It is thought that the acupuncture may have made the brain's opioid receptors more sensitive to the medication, which enabled it to work better. 

    Although some think of acupuncture as an alternative to traditional medical treatment for pain, this study shows that the two can actually complement each other, which may provide an excellent pain-relief option for patients. 

    Kirkendoll, Shantell M. (2009, August 10). Chinese acupuncture affects brain's ability to regulate pain, study shows. University of Michigan Health System.

Published On: August 12, 2009